Less than half of the signatories to the National Pro Bono Aspirational Target managed to attain the minimum amount of hours prescribed by the scheme.
The Fourth Performance Report on the target, released by the National Pro Bono Resource Centre yesterday (5 October), showed that of the 82.5 per cent of signatory firms who reported on their performance, only 45.5 per cent contributed more than 35 hours per lawyer per annum.
Centre director John Corker told Lawyers Weekly he was neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with the results, and said that he hoped the "visibility" of the pro bono contributions would inspire more firms to sign up to the target.
"We think [the report] is important for the visibility of a really vital, ethical value of the legal profession," he said. "This is a vehicle for raising that visibility."
Despite the failure of many firms to reach the minimum requirement, the amount of signatories to the target continues to grow, and many firms are contributing above and beyond expectations.
"Many signatories exceed [the target], and some even double it," said Corker.
"The eight law firm signatories with more than 50 lawyers that met the Target averaged 48.6 hours per lawyer per annum and jointly provided almost 180,000 hours of pro bono work last year. However there is still a lot of variation in performance amongst the 13 large firms who reported."
According to Corker, the failure of some firms to reach the target may be due to the economic downturn.
"Whilst the legal profession weathered the economic downturn quite well, the effects of it are still being felt by some," he said.
Corker was unable to reveal which law firms had performed the best, as the majority of firms had indicated that they did not want pro bono contributions developing into a league table-type scenario.
"That is quite a strongly-held view in most of the firms," he said. "We are not trying to point out who is doing better. Some will argue that [doing so] may inspire others, but others will say that it is the wrong motivation for pro bono."
According to the report, this year's top performing firm has just three lawyers, who all did an average of 240 hours of pro bono work last year.
According to Corker, small firms continue to perform strongly in this area and, while the statistics tend to reflect a greater effort on the part of small firms, Corker said it is difficult to compare the contributions of small and larger firms.
"Smaller firms and sole practitioners ... do more than their fair share of pro bono work each year," he said.
"But pro bono for small firms and sole practitioners is a very different thing ... It is quite a commitment in the sense that the capacity of a small firm is less to accommodate particularly significant pro bono matters. If you are a small practitioner and you get involved in a pro bono matter, there is likely to be quite a lot of hours involved in it. You don't have the luxury of being able to share the work around that exists in a larger firm."