Lawyers have long contributed free legal work to those in need. But in recent years, law firms have grown so eager to take on cases “pro bono” that they have started to pay for the privilege.

Lawyers have long contributed free legal work to those in need. But in recent years, law firms have grown so eager to take on cases "pro bono" that they have started to pay for the privilege. 2

Lawyers have long contributed free legal work to those in need. But in recent years, law firms have grown so eager to take on cases “pro bono” that they have started to pay for the privilege.

Since 2005, Lawyers Without Borders Inc., a nonprofit organization that focuses on strengthening the legal process around the world, has required that law firms donate at least $7,500 a year to guarantee access to the cases it handles. Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts Inc., a nonprofit which delivers legal services to the arts community, gives first crack at desirable cases to firms that contribute to it. In other, less explicit arrangements, firms give money, office space or clerical help to organizations that funnel pro bono work to them.

“These cases don’t just come,” says Scott Harshbarger, a former attorney general of Massachusetts who was hired by Proskauer Rose LLP in 2005 in part to head up a new pro bono initiative at the firm. “You’ve got to pony up.”

By the standards of corporate charitable giving, law-firm donations to public-interest groups aren’t huge. A typical annual donation from one firm to a single group may be in the range of $20,000, lawyers say. But lawyers at some large firms say it’s not uncommon for annual budgets for donations for public-interest organizations to range upwards of $1 million.

Some firms bristle at the explicitness of some public-interest groups’ demands. “Personally, it turns me off when organizations come to me and say, ‘You’re going to have to contribute to get work,’ ” says lawyer Scot Fishman, who is manager of corporate social responsibility at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae LLP in New York. “We certainly don’t mind making contributions, but we want to make those decisions on our own.” Mr. Fishman says LeBoeuf does give financial support to organizations it works with, but it prefers groups that don’t require a payment before a relationship can begin.

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