Last year, Laura Martella was looking for ways to help out Interval House, a non-profit organization that assists victims of domestic violence. She learned about the organization through its annual fundraising event and wanted to volunteer to answer its crisis hotline.
Then the staff at Interval House, which has a shelter in Hartford, Conn., found out that Martella is a lawyer, and her opportunities to help the organization mushroomed.
Martella, a commercial litigation associate at Day Pitney, spoke with Interval House about the need for free legal representation and in November established a program in which 10 additional Day Pitney associates volunteer their time. They represent women in obtaining temporary restraining orders against their alleged abusers in Hartford and Tolland family courts.
The pro bono project has taken in 20 cases since January and has provided a lot of in-court experience for associates who normally don't see the courtroom.
"It's a great opportunity for young associates to get client contact," said Martella, whose billable hour work includes defending lenders against predatory lending claims brought by borrowers. "Cases are much more personal and make a difference in people's lives."
Martella's efforts with the Interval House combined with other pro bono projects have pushed Day Pitney's average pro bono contributions to nearly 60 hours per attorney over the past 12 months, which is the first time that's happened.
"We've definitely had an uptick in pro bono hours this year," said Stamford-based Day Pitney partner Andrew Gaillard, who chairs the firm's pro bono committee. "I suppose the economy is part of that, but there's also been an uptick from more projects."
That includes work that Washington, D.C., attorneys are doing on behalf of Guantanamo Bay detainees and a legal clinic in Boston that relies on Day Pitney attorneys there to help low-income people with various legal matters, such as obtaining disability benefits or negotiating with the electric company to keep power on in their home.
Plenty of other firms around the country also are seeing increased activity on the pro bono front.
A late July survey by the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center revealed that pro bono hours increased by 13 percent in 2008 among 135 of the firms involved in the institute's Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge. It's a jump the report called "extraordinary."
Esther Lardent, the institute's president and chief executive officer, said that tough economic times in the past have spurred law firms to pull back on pro bono efforts and concentrate on money-making projects. That hasn't happened this time around.
"The reason that lots of people would give [for the increase in pro bono hours] is the slowdown in work," Lardent said. "People certainly saw that slowdown in the last six months of 2008. But this time firms wanted to keep [attorneys] engaged and have them learn new skills through pro bono."
Edward Heath, chair of Robinson & Cole's pro bono committee, said it's been "very easy" to encourage the firm's attorneys to hit the 50-hour annual mark for unpaid service, which the firm is on par to meet again this year.
"The message we've tried to create is it's okay to do this and you don't always have to go out and make money," Heath said.
The Pro Bono Institute launched the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge in 1993 and set a goal of having firms put at least 3 percent of their working hours toward pro bono work. Another goal is that firms make an institutional commitment to pro bono and not rely on individual attorneys to find their own volunteer work.
The increase in pro bono hours isn't just a byproduct of attorneys not having enough billable work to keep busy, Lardent said. Law firm pro bono efforts are more organized and streamlined than ever before.
"We're seeing a different attitude about pro bono," she said. "Firms are being much more proactive. They're taking on big-time, signature projects."
Martella's Interval House initiative could be considered one of them. Those cases are not just about pushing paper. Once a temporary restraining order is granted to a person, a hearing date is set and the case is referred to Martella and the Day Pitney associates.
One of the lawyers meets with the client at the Hartford shelter to learn about the domestic unrest that led to the temporary restraining order and then the lawyer prepares the client for a cross-examination during the hearing. Martella, who has handled about five of the 20 cases herself, said the project also allows associates unfamiliar with trial work to learn the skills of drafting direct examination and conducting evidentiary hearings.
Sheila Huddleston, the pro bono coordinator at Shipman & Goodwin, said her firm's lawyers do pro bono work for Lawyers for Children America, a Hartford-based advocacy organization for abused and neglected children. Others help out with Shipman's own Security Deposit Clinic, which intervenes in landlord-tenant disputes involving low-income residents.
Huddleston said she's not surprised to hear that other firms are ramping up their pro bono workload. "It's a great opportunity for young associates to get experience in a wide range of matters that they might not otherwise experience in their firm," Huddleston said. "Pro bono cases get you involved in the nitty-gritty of people's lives and there's something rewarding about helping children with their problems or helping a person get back a security deposit because that security deposit means a lot to them."
Timothy Bates, a land use partner in Robinson & Cole's New London, Conn., office, has seen the nitty-gritty of life through his representation of a New London homeless shelter that the city has threatened to close based on zoning regulations. Bates has teamed up with Hartford associate Joel Norwood, both of whom have had a slowdown in their practice area.
"There hasn't been much zoning work with the recession," Bates said. "To have something intellectually stimulating like this to work on has helped keep us sharp. There was so little development work over the winter that this case is a high percentage of what has kept me active during these dark times."
The duo has logged nearly 240 hours on the project since February, Bates said.
Their client, the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, was set up several years ago in the basement of St. James Episcopal Church in downtown New London after budget cuts ended the city's social services program.
The homeless shelter was created by an emergency ordinance, but recently the city and church began to dispute whether shelter was properly zoned and the city attempted to close the shelter down. "That's when we were retained," Bates said.
He and Norwood studied the city's zoning regulations to find a commercial zone outside of downtown that was suitable for the homeless shelter; at the same time, the two attorneys researched case law and drafted a brief of legal arguments that was used to keep the shelter at the church until a new location is found.
Currently, Bates said they're working with the city to resolve the matter at a time when shelters are being used more often. "It's no surprise that during a recession the demand for beds is really high," Bates said. "This has been an important exercise."
Bates has done a lot of pro bono work for religious organizations, but he said the homeless shelter case has required more time and effort.
"This tugged at my heartstrings," Bates said. "There's a 'them' and 'us' mentality when it comes to talking about homeless people. But the distance between them and us is not as big as we think, and it's important to realize that."
Martella, the Day Pitney associate helping the women's shelter, said it's that type of awareness that compels her to assist less fortunate people.
"It's just important for me to contribute in this way," she said. "I wouldn't feel like I was using my law degree to the ultimate if I didn't do this."
This story includes reporting from the National Law Journal, a sister publication of the Connecticut Law Tribune.