Rationalizing Pro Bono: Corporate Social Responsibility and the Reinvention of Legal Professionalism in Elite American Law Firms

Publication Date


Document Type

Book Chapter

Organizational Units

Sturm College of Law


Pro Bono, Corporate Law, Social responsibility, Public interest


The term "pro bono publico" has a long-standing tradition within the American legal profession, although its definition and organizing principles have dramatically changed over time. In this chapter, we review the historical development of the contemporary US pro bono regime and then discuss the recent emergence among elite American law firms of corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a rationale for pro bono practice. In contrast to the legal professionalism rationale for pro bono, wherein lawyers owe a distinct professional obligation to provide meaningful access to the legal system, the CSR rationale locate pro bono under the umbrella of broader commitments to public service, including diversity, philanthropy, environmental sustainability, and global corporate citizenship.

We draw on interviews with pro bono coordinators and content analysis of pro bono and social responsibility statements from leading law firms to examine how CSR interacts with other pro bono rationales to generate overlapping, contested, and sometimes conflicting understandings of pro bono practice and legal professionalism. We posit sources of the CSR movement, primarily rooted in firms' efforts to market themselves to corporate clients. Yet, CSR is more than mere marketing rhetoric for these firms, but rather appears to substantially influence how firms structure, implement, and understand their pro bono contributions. The chapter concludes by discussing implications for the future of US legal professionalism and the provision of pro bono legal services. By shifting attention away from pro bono as a matter of lawyers' distinctive duties and capacities, the CSR framework alters the traditional legitimating narratives of the profession and, we suggest, may ultimately jeopardize the AmLaw sector's robust commitment to pro bono participation.

Copyright Date


Copyright Statement / License for Reuse

All Rights Reserved
All Rights Reserved.

Publication Statement

Copyright is held by Cambridge University Press. User is responsible for all copyright compliance. This chapter was originally published as:

John Bliss & Steven Boutcher, Rationalizing Pro Bono: Corporate Social Responsibility and the Reinvention of Legal Professionalism in Elite American Law Firms, in Global Pro Bono: Causes, Context, and Contestation 77 (Scott Cummings, Fabio de Sa e Silva & Louise Trubek, eds., 2022).

Rights Holder

Cambridge University Press

Publication Title

Global Pro Bono: Causes, Context, and Contestation

First Page


Last Page



978-1-108-47615-7, 9781108567251

This document is currently not available here.