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Pro bono: Clayton Utz milestone

News

Cite as: August 2015 89 (8) LIJ, p.25

The large law firm has hit an Australian record for pro bono hours. By Carolyn Ford

By any measure, Clayton Utz’s pro bono contribution is extraordinary. The large law firm has clocked more than 500,000 hours of pro bono work since its volunteer program began in 1997.

The startling sum – achieved early July – was revealed at the LIV legal awards night, when the firm won the Large Law Firm of the Year (more than 50 partners) award. The awards MC, 774 radio presenter Jon Faine exclaimed on the night and also the next morning on air, as well he might – it is an Australian record and the largest contribution by any firm outside the US, according to the firm.

“Pro bono is our largest client. We watch the numbers roll over each morning. It is a pretty significant milestone,” said Clayton Utz’s national pro bono partner David Hillard. The amount represents 3.5 to 4 per cent of total work annually or one in every 29 hours of client work.

“We put a structure around something we wanted all of our people to do and something that was encouraged and expected. Pro bono is an inherent part of who we are as lawyers. All of our lawyers have a KPI of 40 pro bono hours a year, but we average higher than that. It’s factored into promotions and bonuses. Our best lawyers are also our best pro bono contributors.

“What I think we’ve done really well is integrate it into being just part of what it means to be a Clayton Utz lawyer. We have made pro bono a real part of what this firm’s practice is. More of our lawyers did pro bono than any other large firm. More of ours achieve the national target of 35 hours. So really it’s just a large part of who we are. Pro bono is one of our 14 practice groups, we sit at the big table and have a voice in all the firm’s decisions.

“If you wandered around our offices, you would see there are lots of offices with stickers on their door that signify more than 80 hours of pro bono in a year.

“Our pro bono practice is very much targeted at low income and disadvantaged clients. We act for not-for-profits [1100 in 18 years] but we have internal targets so that the majority of our new work each year is for people who can’t get legal aid and would otherwise just fall through the cracks.”

Mr Hillard, who started the firm’s program, became its first pro bono partner in 2005 and oversees 600 matters annually, said most of Clayton Utz’s pro bono work is “not sexy test case stuff”. Although it does that, too, most notably the High Court quashing of the murder conviction of Andrew Mallard in WA in 2005. It has acted in more than 400 harassment-discrimination cases, more than 400 domestic violence compensation claims, has helped more than 1300 homeless clients, elder abuse victims, women who have been sex-trafficked and so on.

“We have acted for 25 slaves in suburban Australia in the last six years. We acted for a bloke who was working in an Indian restaurant in western Sydney 12 hours a day, every day for 16 months, without getting paid. He was awarded $186,000 by the court.

“If you look at the pro bono work done in the corporate world, around the world, the majority of work is done for not-for-profits. We make sure our practice has an access to justice direction.”

Clayton Utz works with CLCs, clearing houses and legal aid offices, to identify need. It’s been involved with 36 outreach programs nationally over 18 years.

“There is no way we can fill the gap of unmet need. We are not in competition with anybody. We are tying to pick up work that the legal assistance sector is unable to do due to resourcing.”

Mr Hillard said the pro bono commitment was attractive to existing and potential staff, also clients, but probably more a disadvantage to any firm that didn’t have a strong pro bono practice, so expected was it. However, such advantage wasn’t the driver.

“We surveyed our lawyers three years ago. About 40 per cent said it was part of why they stayed. It is seen as something genuine by people who are here. Most lawyers go into law to help and be part of a justice system that works. I am proud to enable that within a corporate law structure.

“Clients can help foster a pro bono culture, too. It’s very reassuring to have clients ask about it but it’s by no means driven by them. The Victorian government has a requirement in its tender arrangements although we do more pro bono work than we do Victorian government commercial work so we probably achieve the Victorian target six times over. It’s not the reason we do pro bono to the level we do in Victoria. Similarly the Commonwealth asks about pro bono as part of its panel arrangements and again, we exceed the national pro bono target of 35 hours per year. We have a KPI of 40 hours, our average is around 50 hours.

“Increasingly there are in-house legal teams becoming involved in pro bono work. It’s at an early stage in Australia. We help our significant clients develop their pro bono practices or the charities their organisation supports.”

The Australian legal profession has a strong and increasingly collaborative pro bono culture, Mr Hillard said. Recently, eight of the largest pro bono practices in corporate law firms wrote jointly to the attorneys-general urging increased funding for legal assistance. Also, Clayton Utz, Allens and Ashurst appeared jointly before the Productivity Commission last year.

“It was a genuine letter, I hope it helps government understanding of what needs to be done. Pro bono can’t come close to filling the gap. Collectively, we think we can provide about 3 per cent of what the legal assistance sector can provide for disadvantaged people, so it’s a drop in the ocean.

“Half a million hours translates to less than 10,000 matters. It’s significant for one firm but it’s not going to come close to touching the sides of the level of need out there. It’s an important part but it’s a tiny part. It’s not the solution. It’s tempting for all governments around the country to think that pro bono will fill the gaps.”

Mr Hillard said the firm doesn’t put a dollar figure on its pro bono work because it would be wrong to suggest pro bono might compare meaningfully with government funding for the legal assistance sector.

“In Australia there is an expectation that if you need a lawyer, you will be given one. The reality is that you won’t. Cuts in funding over the past 18 years plus prioritising criminal and family law matters have meant that there is very, very little civil law money spent at all. In terms of enforcing your rights it’s incredibly lucky to get access to a lawyer. That’s a situation most people don’t realise.

“We see clients on social security who don’t qualify for legal aid. If people are caught up in dodgy contracts or they are deceived or discriminated against or harassed or they lose their jobs or are evicted from their homes, really core rights, there isn’t access to a lawyer. It’s a difficult situation.

“At Clayton Utz and other firms, we will get better at what we do. The numbers can’t grow much, although there’s growth potential at some mid-tier firms. We will concentrate on better outreach, finding people who need help. And we are excited about nurturing the growth of our health-justice partnerships.

CLCs to benefit

State government legal services panel pro bono requirements have doubled to 10 per cent and community legal centres will be among the major beneficiaries.

Attorney-General Martin Pakula announced the new minimum pro bono contribution on 1 July. He said the new requirements would strengthen pro bono legal services and provide new opportunities for small and medium law firms to provide services in single areas of law in which they have expertise.

The new panel, which will be for a fixed term of three years and four months, will begin on 1 March 2016.

“Our CLCs, which help so many disadvantaged Victorians access the justice system, will be among the major beneficiaries of the new pro bono requirements. The new panel will make it easier for small and medium law firms, and firms in regional Victoria, to tender for work,” Mr Pakula said.

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