Laren Spirer has seen the role of law firm pro bono manager evolve quite a bit since she first stepped into the position at Debevoise & Plimpton in 2005. Not only have more and more firms embraced the idea of having an attorney manage their pro bono program full-time, but there is now a national organization to support networking and professional development for people in the role, the Association of Pro Bono Counsel.
The trend, she says, is definitely an encouraging one. “It’s important because it signals to the lawyers that the firm is taking pro bono seriously and giving them an additional resource to facilitate pro bono work,” Laren said.
Laren describes her primary role as “making it as easy as possible for everybody to do pro bono work.” This includes finding opportunities, developing relationships with legal services organizations, working on knowledge management, developing expertise, getting lawyers trained and helping them find resources, publicizing the good work performed by Debevoise lawyers, and, occasionally, troubleshooting.
Laren came to Debevoise after spending five years at Pro Bono Net as the first New York Program Coordinator. “My work at PBN really helped me get the experience and develop the professional relationships I needed to be even better in my role here at Debevoise,” she said. “I can look back and proudly say I have a 10-year career in pro bono.”
Debevoise “has a very robust pro bono program,” Laren says. “It really is very firmly woven into the fabric of the culture of the firm.” While 2009 statistics are still in the process of being finalized, in 2008, Debevoise attorneys in the U.S. performed 54,286 hours of pro bono work, and over 95% of attorneys in the firm’s U.S. offices billed time to pro bono projects. 2009 numbers will show an increase over 2008, Laren said.
Projects are chosen in a variety of ways. Some are the result of longstanding relationships with public interest organizations or the interests of partners. But, Laren notes, “Many of our projects are developed in a grassroots way and are driven by attorney interest. People feel comfortable bringing something in on their own.”
Laren is aided in her management of the program by Pro Bono Manager, Pro Bono Net’s pro bono practice management software for law firms. Debevoise was one of the first customers for the product. “It’s a very valuable resource to me,” she said. “I can access a lot of information very quickly.” By cutting down on time spent crunching numbers and producing reports, “it frees me up to focus on other aspects of the pro bono program at the firm.”
In addition to her duties at Debevoise, Laren is on the leadership council of The Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo). The group, formed in 2006, now has more than 100 members from 75 law firms. Laren was instrumental in the recent launch of a new website, developed in conjunction with Pro Bono Net.
APBCo works to support the professional development of its members, as well as to increase the amount of pro bono work being done. The website has a library of resources and hosts a listserv used by members, and the group holds regular meetings throughout the year. An annual “APBCo Academy” each fall provides training in areas such as time management and public speaking.
A side effect of being at the forefront of the growing group of law firm pro bono managers, Laren has found, is that she is often asked by other attorneys how they can one day end up in a job like hers. Her advice? First, understand the role. “It’s a very unique position,” she says. “It’s not for somebody who’s just disenchanted with law firm life and wants to do pro bono. It is a career.”
For those who are determined, she said, “getting involved in the pro bono community on a wider scale beyond your pro bono case is a way to go.” Getting involved in a bar committee or with a legal services provider is helpful in forming relationships. Also important, she noted, is to “look at pro bono as part of a wider social justice picture. You must be passionate about what we do.”