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Pro Bono: Equal shares

Every Issue

Cite as: (2004) 78(1-2) LIJ, p. 84

A well-structured approach to pro bono benefits both legal firms and their pro bono clients.

Few lawyers disagree with the idea of pro bono services when they meet the needs of disadvantaged people who cannot otherwise protect their rights and interests. Indeed, according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) statistics,[1] in 2001/02 Australian lawyers contributed a healthy 866,300 hours of legal services without expectation of a fee, 123,100 hours of free community legal education and/or law reform and 536,700 hours of legal services at a reduced fee.

Interestingly, the ABS found that there is an apparent inverse relationship between the size of the legal practice and the average amount of pro bono reported by individual practitioners. Sole practitioners did significantly more pro bono than solicitors working in practices with 10 or more principals. And practitioners situated outside capital cities reported taking on a significantly higher pro bono load than their capital city counterparts. It is clear that responsibility for the conduct of pro bono is not evenly shared across the profession. And it is clear that there are a wide range of views about how this can and should be addressed.

Some advocates and law reform bodies argue for what are called “aspirational” targets or guides. These typically involve professional associations promulgating guidelines for a voluntary minimum number of hours pro bono per lawyer per year. For example, since 1993 the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct have included a minimum voluntary pro bono goal of at least 50 hours per lawyer per year. In Australia there have been recommendations in favour of adopting similar voluntary guides.

Another means of promoting a more even distribution of pro bono effort is the promotion of structured pro bono programs within larger law firms. There is a trend for these firms to increase their commitment to pro bono and expand their pro bono services.

Aware that one of the risks associated with getting bigger is also getting further away from both pro bono clients and the sort of legal services that they need, pro bono supporters within law firms are realising that a structured rather than an ad hoc approach to pro bono provides benefits for both the firms and the recipients of their services. It signals a firm’s ongoing commitment to pro bono and parallels the move in large firms towards greater structure and formalism in other areas of firm administration. Effectively implemented, structured programs provide opportunities for a greater number of lawyers to participate in a range of services, enhance the ability of firms to target their resources in ways considered most beneficial, to track and record the work and consequently measure its costs and benefits, and to manage the level of commitment to pro bono work of all kinds. Importantly, such programs also capture the interest of many young lawyers who typically enter the profession with an enthusiasm for pro bono work.

There are a variety of such structures already operating in some of the larger law firms in Australia. Firms are increasingly forming pro bono committees, developing pro bono policies and procedures, employing or designating particular members of staff as pro bono coordinators, creating firm-wide pro bono budgets and targets and devising systems to count and credit hours spent on pro bono. At least seven firms now employ full-time coordinators and many others have part-time coordinators. An increasing number of mid-sized and large firms have active in-house pro bono practices and work closely with community legal organisations, accepting referrals, targeting particular areas of need and even training their lawyers to take on particular kinds of pro bono work. A number of firms have developed “multi-tiered relationships” with community organisations providing not only direct legal assistance such as legal advice and representation for clients or for the organisation and secondments of staff, but other kinds of non-legal assistance such as access to law firm facilities or information technology services, marketing and publications assistance, accounting and bookkeeping services.

To help firms develop, expand and maintain structured pro bono programs, the National Pro Bono Resource Centre (NPBRC) has recently compiled The Australian Pro Bono Manual: A practice guide and resource kit for law firms. Co-published with the Victoria Law Foundation, the manual includes practical advice on topics ranging from promoting a pro bono culture within the firm and sourcing pro bono work to budgeting, taxation and crediting pro bono time. The manual is available online free from the NPBRC at http://www.nationalprobono.org.au or in hard copy for $35 from the Victoria Law Foundation at http://www.victorialaw.org.au.

Looking to help?

To facilitate lawyers and firms becoming involved in pro bono work other than legal services, the LIJ will profile a community group and its needs each month.

Name of group Financial Counselling (Vic) Inc
Contact person Helen Smallwood
Title Chairperson
Tel 9585 1955
Email debtprob@vicnet.net.au
Website http://www.vicnet.net.au/~debtprob
Address Suite 1A, 147 Centre Dandenong Road, Cheltenham 3192

Brief description of work of group
The agency provides regional information, advice, referral, advocacy and education to members of the community about their rights and responsibilities with an emphasis on empowering people who are adversely affected by inequalities within our social and economic systems. It networks with agencies and consumers and other relevant groupson the identification of broader social and economic and policy issues and the development and strategies to address them. The agency practises the principles of community development through advocacy, direct action, networking, participation and self-help.

For more information about volunteering visit:

http://www.goodcompany.com.au

http://www.probonoaustralia.com

http://www.ourcommunity.com.au

http://www.govolunteer.com.au


This column is coordinated by the VICTORIA LAW FOUNDATION. For further information contact the Pro Bono Secretariat via the VLF’s website http://www.victorialaw.org.au.

probonocolumn@liv.asn.au


[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001-02 Legal Services Survey.

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