It is a staple on a graduate applicant’s CV, a primary contributor to increasing access to justice and, following the legal aid cuts in 2012, it plays an ever-increasingly important role in the legal community. Why, then is pro bono work so easily forgotten once we enter the world of work?
Below we set out some of the commonly perceived barriers which prevent individuals from undertaking pro bono work, break these down and demonstrate why pro bono work can, and should, play a greater role in all our careers.
I do not have enough time!
Clients to satisfy, meetings to attend and networking events to make an appearance at, followed by social engagements, parents’ evenings and bath times; time is not in abundance in the world of law. It feels like there is simply not enough of it to take on additional pro bono work.
Pro Bono work does not need to be time-consuming. Pro bono work can instead consist of small, discrete projects which only require a few hours of your time but can have a big impact for the pro bono client. For example, helping a charity write its articles of association, explaining the terms of a contract, or attending a Law Clinic. A lot of lawyers doing a little pro bono each can together make a big difference.
The burden doesn’t all have to fall on you. By initiating meetings with law clinics and charities, those in a senior position can promote a culture of pro bono work within the firm, arranging pro bono work for those who do have capacity to take it on. There may be more support available at your firm than you expect.
I do not have the budget to do Pro Bono work
More often than not, corporate clients not only expect their legal advisors to engage pro bono work, they require us to do it. Clients are becoming more ethically focused and how much pro bono a firm does is becoming a key factor in who they choose to instruct. Similarly, client in-house teams are becoming increasingly engaged with pro bono and therefore increasingly aware of its benefits. Being able to showcase and be proud of your pro bono work looks excellent on a tender and is a great way to boost a firm’s profile in the legal world. It gives a strong message about the firm’s values and enhances the way a firm is seen in the community.
Clients expect you and your competitors to be socially conscious: law firms simply cannot afford not to do it.
Why pro bono and not another form of volunteering?
There is no doubt that all kinds of volunteer work are commendable, valuable and greatly appreciated. However, it is not necessarily your time that a charity wants, but your skill as a lawyer.
Being able to engage with an expert will help an organisation free up their time, save expense, and allow them to spend more time doing what they are experts at. Conversely getting a lay volunteer directly involved in a charity’s work often requires additional time and expense on the part of the charity to organise the one-off volunteer work.
Lawyers are highly trained individuals with specific (and often expensive) skills that are in short supply and can be inaccessible to organisations who need them. It is these skills that charities want to tap into, not the (sometimes questionable) ability of a legal expert to paint a wall.
I do not have expertise in the area of law where pro bono work is available
Pro bono work for organisations will often match up with your practice areas; charities have issues which relate to property, commercial contracts and dispute resolution. Indeed, their stricter budgets will often mean that they are unfamiliar with using lawyers and therefore unfamiliar with even the most common legal pitfalls, so often even less specialist can be extremely valuable.
For individuals, immigration, family and employment are the areas most commonly viewed as relevant to pro bono work and it is true that not everyone can offer pro bono advice in these areas. However, there will always be a pro bono case ready and waiting for a lawyer to take it on in any area of law whether it is a small commercial dispute, a private landlord matter, or a consumer issue. Law centres and clinics are in a prime position to link you up with those who best need your area of expertise and through making these connections, you can be selective about the work you undertake, ensuring it is within your skill base.
For those who do want to branch into an area of law they have an interest but not experience, there may also be the possibility of legal training available.
Finally, as trainee solicitor you move between seats and are expected to contribute, with supervision, in new industries and areas of law. This adaptive attitude does not need to leave us as we qualify, especially as our base skills improve and become more valuable. The good thing about being a lawyer is that you are highly trained in a lot of transferable skills.
Pro Bono work will displace ‘real’ client work
Pro bono work is in actual fact an excellent way to attract client work and it allows individuals to hone specific skill sets which given them experience that can be hugely beneficial in their fee earning work. Junior lawyers in particular find themselves doing pro bono work with more client contact or responsibility than they are used to. Pro bono work also provides the perfect training for senior associates, giving them the experience of managing client relationships and internal teams that ready them for partnership. Undertaking pro bono work therefore creates better lawyers who provide high quality work, boost revenue and attract clients.
Not only is there an excellent business case for undertaking pro bono work, studies show that volunteering is great for your mental health. Expanding your skill-set, stimulating your brain with new areas of law and interacting with individuals from all walks of life is a great way to give back to the community and improve your sense of well-being. Volunteering has been shown to decrease the risks of depression, increase confidence and give a sense of purpose. There will always be barriers but fortunately lawyers are well trained in breaking down these barriers for clients and there is an excellent case for why they should do this for pro bono work.
With thanks to Zoe Hunt, previously of Bevan Brittan for preparing this post.