The Cost of Helping Others

As we noted here last time, pro bono work provides numerous benefits for law firms of all sizes. But there is another side to the story-good work costs money. The time an attorney takes performing pro bono work takes time away from billable cases.

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The latest Super Lawyers Playbook, Doing Good While Doing Well: A Road Map to Success with Pro Bono, demonstrates that managing your costs can help you sustain your firm's pro bono program.

There are several strategies for managing pro bono costs. Let's say you're running a solo firm. You're undoubtedly tracking how much income you need to make to cover rent and other expenses. (If you don't have a firm handle on your solo firm's revenues and expenses, now's the time to do so.) That way, when you're presented with a pro bono opportunity, you can get a good sense what it would require financially to take it on.

For instance, you can estimate how many more hours of your time the work would require. It might be a lot. Still, you need to balance that measure with pro bono's benefits. Those include positive publicity, contacts to potential new clients and the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes from any philanthropic endeavor.

The calculations are a bit different if you are managing a larger firm. You've already calculated your attorneys' salaries and how many billable hours they need to cover them. Building in additional pro bono hours as part of that expense will allow the firm to cover the "lost" revenue. Setting up a billing system that separates pro bono hours from billable hours via distinct codes can help you track them. You then can increase or decrease your firm's pro bono hours each year based upon your firm's bottom line.

This approach allows you to separate the emotion from the practical side of having to ensure the firm's continued existence. It also shows the attorney that he he or she can take on pro bono work without hurting the firm's revenues. That's important if your goal is to inspire your associates to take on such cases.

"The last thing you want to have happen is to get your attorneys engaged in this volunteer work and then have to abruptly shut it down," says Lawrence McDonough, pro bono counsel at the law firm Dorsey. "Being extremely visible to the leadership of the firm with the cost and time associated with these efforts makes for a long-lasting commitment."

When you do the math, it's clear that the benefits outweigh the costs. But that's as long as you do the math right, and calculate those costs correctly.

Now it's time to make a different type of calculation: How do you figure out what pro bono work to take on? We'll take a look at that next. In the meantime, you can learn more about the best ways to do good by downloading the new Super Lawyers Playbook.