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| 2 minutes read

Can Pro-Bono Legal Services Survive Billable Hour Requirements?

As a young attorney, my principal focus was learning and perfecting my chosen legal craft and profession - construction law. Once I mastered the craft, money and success would naturally follow. A quick and easy method to gain experience, especially court experience,  was to perform free pro-bono services for clients who could not afford to hire a law firm. I plunged head first into providing pro-bono services and after my first year had more trial experience than most all of my peers. Much like a skilled tradesman, I viewed construction law as a craft that only experience could master. The more pro-bono trial experience I gained, the better craftsman I became. There were no mandatory billable hour requirements - I billed what I worked and got paid what I was worth. But that was 36 years ago now, and law firms have since undergone a sea change.  

Nowadays, law firms view the legal craft as a business, rather than a profession. Young attorneys right out of law school are paid an annual salary, 5 times more than my starting pay, not counting their signing bonus. This generation of young attorneys have little opportunity to develop their craft through pro-bono services.  In order to maintain their inflated salaries and lavish lifestyles, they must meet and exceed billable hour requirements. Profits, not public service, are now driving the profession. Money and success now pre-date experience. It is now common place, for attorneys to seek partnership, without having performed any pro-bono services and without any meaningful trial experience.  

The decline of pro-bono services results directly from the creation of mandatory billing requirements. The American Bar Association or ABA recommends that every attorney provide a minimum of 50 hours of free pro-bono services each year. This aspirational goal, although easily attainable, has been in a continual state of decline, while the mandatory billable hour requirements continually rise.  A survey conducted in 2023 of 47,000 attorneys in 24 States revealed that only 52% performed pro-bono services, with the average lawyer working just 37 hours.  The other 48% of attorneys admitted to not providing any pro-bono services in 2023, and 19% admitted to never providing any pro-bono services whatsoever. As the legal profession transforms into a business, professionalism and pro-bono services are declining at a rapid rate.

No one knows where the fate of pro-bono services will end. In Atlanta, non-profits such as Atlanta Legal Aid or ALA and Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation or AVLF work tirelessly to serve those in need. But they are already spread too thin and can only do so much. If those in need are to receive the needed pro-bono services the ALA and AVLF need help. They need volunteers who are willing to serve and gain the necessary experience to become talented attorneys with experience in the courts. We need a return of professionalism to law firms and an acknowledgement that law is a profession, not just a business.


“[P]ublic service marks the difference between a business and a profession. While a business can afford to focus solely on profits, a profession cannot. It must devote itself first to the community it is responsible to serve. I can imagine no greater duty than fulfilling this obligation. And I can imagine no greater pleasures.” – Justice Sandra Day O’Connor 78 Or. L. Rev. 385, 391 (1999)


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