While most practice group leaders at Chicago's large law firms worry about finding enough work to keep their lawyers busy, the heads of those firm's pro bono practices worry about finding enough lawyers to tackle their mountain of matters.
Lawyers who work full time as pro bono counsel or partner in Chicago said they view their role as similar to any other practice group leader. It involves managing budgets of time and money and creating marketing strategies to land in-demand work.
In addition to managing their lawyers, these practice leaders double as gatekeepers — helping to allocate those lawyers to best quench countless pro bono requests.
Take Gregory A. McConnell, Winston & Strawn LLP's firmwide pro bono counsel, for example.
He said he hears pro bono requests from 200 to 300 legal aid organizations a year in Chicago, New York and Washington. D.C., among other markets.
Last year, McConnell helped his firm spread 62,000 pro bono hours, about 4 to 5 percent of its total billable hours, among those organizations. Still, pro bono demand outpaces his supply of lawyers.
"And it never fails to surprise people when they understand a layered element to that" demand, he said. "Firms compete pretty aggressively for pro bono opportunities. We're all trying to get the right opportunities for the right people."
While different firms compete for different pro bono matters, they look for cases that share some characteristics.
For instance, firms often look for pro bono matters in the same practices where their lawyers thrive and get paid, SNR Denton's pro bono partner, Benjamin C. Weinberg, said.
Weinberg said his firm prides itself on its work defending companies from securities class-action lawsuits. Lawyers in that group also handle pro bono class-action cases, such as Ligas v. Hamos and Colbert v. Quinn, two notable disability rights cases in Chicago, he said.
Coupling pro bono with successful commercial practices provides more than just top-rate legal services to a needy cause, Weinberg said. It also helps firms get to the front of the line for the next newsworthy pro bono case, he said.
"One of the ways we maintain that is we do important cases, big cases and we make sure the world knows about it," he said.
That dynamic also helps in one of the most important jobs for pro bono leaders: Finding lawyers to volunteer for work, he said.
Unlike other practice group leaders in the firm, pro bono leaders lack the ability to assign lawyers to cases, Latonia Haney Keith, McDermott, Will & Emery LLP's pro bono counsel, said. Pitching relevant, interesting matters proves one of the best ways to boost lawyer involvement, she said.
"So, in some respects, it is about what people gravitate to that will get them to do" pro bono work, Keith said, adding about 80 percent of the firm's lawyers get involved.
Her firm focuses its Chicago pro bono efforts on children's matters, a nonprofit helping women recover from substance abuse and The Sikh Coalition, which rebuts bullying against the ethnic group.
But large firm pro bono matters include some general biases that a Pro Bono Institute study called "troubling" in July.
A study by the Pro Bono Institute says that while overall pro bono hours at firms with more than 50 lawyers last year reached their third-highest level since 1995, work on behalf of low-income individuals and families dropped for the second straight year.
"While legal services and public interest resources and staffing have been decimated, the law firm resources committed to this critical segment of pro bono have also substantially diminished," the study says.
While most large firms' work with banks prohibits their involvement in foreclosure cases, one area with a great need, Keith said it can prove difficult to find large firm lawyers willing to wade into other matters, such as divorce cases, that low-income families typically need help with.
While large firms employ about 15 percent of all lawyers, Keith said she works with the Chicago Bar Foundation and pro bono leaders like McConnell and Weinberg at other large firms to grow involvement from lawyers in all types of employment to get more involved.
"What we're trying to do as a collective … is figure out how we can get more lawyers engaged, not just at our own firms, because that's my job every day, but also at some of the smaller firms or mid-size firms that don't have a 'me,'" Keith said.