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Where there is need

Cite as: April 2015 89 (4) LIJ, p.04

Get the most out of your pro bono efforts. 

By Katie Miller - LIV President

Pro bono is an integral part of being a lawyer. It is one of the many ways lawyers ensure people can access the justice system.

Most lawyers want to do pro bono work but are not sure where best to invest their efforts. There are many deserving cases and only so many hours in the day. How do you choose who to act for and the sort of legal work you will do?

Whether you are a lawyer or a law firm, I encourage you to think about how you will do pro bono and to have a pro bono policy. This will help clarify which cases you will undertake and communicate your pro bono practice to staff and external stakeholders (including prospective pro bono clients).

In preparing for pro bono work, you need to think about what you are willing to do, with whom, where and when.

When considering what pro bono work you will do, be clear about what pro bono means to you. For some lawyers, it means working for no fee. For others, it includes case work, law reform and community legal education. Some consider it to have a public interest criteria. The Law Council of Australia and the Victorian government have definitions of pro bono, which can be found on the National Pro Bono Resource Centre’s website (www.nationalprobono.org.au/page.asp?from=3&id=189).

Consider talking to Justice Connect or the Federation of Community Legal Centres to establish unmet need. These may be in a particular area of law or at a certain stage of the process. For example, there may be unmet need for advices on prospects of success in migration matters.

Another way of sorting through the many deserving causes is to identify a particular theme. It might be a client group or area of law. Your theme doesn’t need to be related to your practice – it might just be something you care about deeply such as prisoners, asylum seekers or people with mental health issues. Alternatively, your theme can fit with your practice and your firm’s values.

Once you have decided what pro bono work you will do, you need to consider with whom you will do it. This might be a client or under the auspices of a community legal centre. The benefits of partnering with a CLC include insurance, supervision arrangements and a focus on the legal work, rather than managing the process. Individuals can volunteer at a CLC and firms can second lawyers to a CLC on a regular basis.

In choosing a CLC to partner with, think about where and when you will do pro bono work. CLCs provide services at different times. Also, a CLC’s location affects types of clients and areas of law that you can expect. Are you prepared to travel to CLCs that have more need but are further away? Can you do pro bono during office hours, at night or on weekends?

Once you have chosen a CLC to partner with, clarify each other’s expectations, including support from the CLC to the lawyer and times lawyers are available. You may also wish to talk about managing conflicts of interest and training.

The Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office (VGSO) has considered these questions in its pro bono program. As government solicitors, VGSO identified the potential for conflict of interest between pro bono clients and government clients. VGSO found the best way to avoid conflict of interest was to partner with a CLC. VGSO selected a theme of mental health and then sought out CLCs specialising in, or servicing clients with, mental health issues. It decided to partner with Brimbank-Melton CLC, which is outside the inner city but near public transport. VGSO provides three lawyers once a week for a general advice clinic. A trial ran for three months and the arrangement has now been in place for more than a year. It has produced tremendous results for BMCLC and VGSO.

I encourage every lawyer to consider pro bono work – to start if you haven’t done so, and if you have, to re-evaluate your contribution so that you and your pro bono clients get the most out of it.

I also wish to congratulate Peter Riordan QC on his recent appointment as a judge of the Supreme Court. His Honour is an outstanding example of the contributions lawyers can make to the legal profession and society more broadly. His Honour has a long history of involvement with state and federal legal bodies including the LIV, the Victorian Bar and the Australian Bar Association. I encourage you to follow his example and get involved with your profession.

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