Can law firms do good and do well at the same time?

We’ve been talking a lot here about how many law firms recognize the importance of serving a greater purpose. And then we came upon this article, which points out an interesting dichotomy: as profits are rising at BigLaw, pro bono participation is plunging. Why is that? Has the struggling economy and resulting fierce competition for clients edged out attorneys’ long-held commitment to helping those in need? For some firms, maybe – but not all.

One of the most profitable firms out there, Simpson Thatcher, is a great case in point. The firm’s chairman Richard Beattie believes so strongly in pro bono work that the firm has contributed 11 years and $21 million dollars in lawyer hours in a single pro bono case aimed at improving public education for New York inner city youth. And we see it in other industries as well – where wildly successful business people like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates have devoted significant time and resources toward philanthropic causes, becoming as well known for doing good as they are for doing well.

Obviously businesses in general and law firms specifically can do good and do well at the same time, so why are pro bono hours suffering as large law firm profits are on the rise? And what can (or should) lawyers do to turn this around?