Pro Bono – Dechert restructures pro bono into practice groups

In a bid to support and encourage transactional lawyers undertaking pro bono work, Dechert has taken the unusual step of introducing distinct pro bono practice groups in its Philadelphia office.

The move, announced late last month, follows last year’s appointment of Suzanne Turner from the firm’s London office as global chair of the pro bono practice.
In Philadelphia, each of the pro bono practice groups has a dedicated partner and associate at its head. The groups will meet regularly, develop precedents and build specialist knowledge. Specialised training sessions have already begun.

Developing specialist expertise in particular areas is a difficult task when law firms conduct their pro bono work on an ad hoc basis. But Turner says: “It was a natural progression for us. The practice group model is the way we structure our paying business, so it made sense to translate that to our pro bono work. Rather than doing a thousand one-off projects, we can build knowledge through the practice groups.”

Turner says that the structure will also allow the firm to be more proactive in its pursuit of pro bono activity.
The new practice groups are: asylum/immigration; child advocacy; civil rights; death penalty; family law; prisoners’ rights; public benefits; real estate; small business and not-for-profit; special education; tax; veterans; and military personnel.

The practice groups will operate on a trial basis, and will be reassessed after six months. “We decided to target Philadelphia to implement the practice groups,” says Turner. “If they’re a success, we’ll spread them out one office at a time.”

According to Dechert’s head of pro bono in Philadelphia, the development and support of these groups will encourage the firm’s attorneys to take on pro bono cases or transactions, enhance the quality of the services the firm provides, and help facilitate its interaction with various referral agencies.

It seems remarkable, but not a single UK firm has implemented a practice group-based pro bono structure. However, for lawyers wanting to get involved in pro bono activity, the structure ensures that pro bono is visible and supported. Turner hopes the move will prompt other UK firms to take similar steps.

The US Model Code of Professional Responsibility has at its core an annual target of 50 hours of pro bono work for each US lawyer. In 2003, Dechert devoted 36,000 hours to pro bono work, up from 32,000 the previous year. Turner estimates that this year the firm will reach the 50-hour target for the first time.