Q: What pro bono legal work does Bainbridge Legal do? Does it have particular focus areas?
At Bainbridge Legal we are open to taking pro bono work from any area that we practise in, which is primarily family law, crime, wills and estates, and civil litigation.
By number of individual pro bono files created, most of our pro bono clients come to us for help with estate planning matters (wills, enduring guardianships and power of attorneys).
As far as actual time spent (rather than the number of files/clients), then family law and civil litigation would probably be at the top of our pro bono list.
Q: What are some of the challenges involved?
A: The number of pro bono matters we can take on is limited because of the excessive complexity of litigation that often comes with someone running the first part of their case as an unrepresented litigant. For example, we are helping an illiterate migrant at the moment who is the defendant in a minor car accident case. The damages are only a few thousand [dollars] – it’s in the small claims division of the Local Court. It should be a relatively simple case to run but we have probably spent about 25 hours on it so far and we are still weeks away from the hearing. Family law cases are also very time intensive.
Q: Why did the firm choose these focus areas?
I don’t think we purposely chose any practice areas, they just seem to be the areas that people need help with. We also have the skill set that enables us to take those cases on.
We are probably more responsive to requests for pro bono estate planning as the time cost for us is limited and therefore we can afford to do them on a more frequent basis. We are more selective with cases involving litigation and the practice will only run one or two at a time.
Q: What impact does the firm’s pro bono work have on its pro bono clients or on public interest issues?
In relation to estate planning, which we often do for terminally ill clients,
the pro bono work appears to have a profound impact on the client and their loved ones. You can see the sense of relief when they can tick off that task in their heads.
I think the terminally ill person feels relief that they are not leaving their loved ones in a predicament caused by lack of planning and the loved ones themselves are probably relieved for the same reason.
With family law cases, a lot depends on the client themselves and also on the outcome of the case. We get a range of reactions from clients who are extremely grateful for our help and we get others who don’t seem to appreciate the help they are getting at all. For the most part we deal with parenting cases where one party isn’t getting to spend time with their child. Statistically this means we often act for fathers in cases where the mothers are not facilitating time, but we have acted for grandparents seeking time with their grandchildren.
Getting an order for a person to spend time with a child that has been withheld from them for several months always gets a great reaction from the client and remains one of the most satisfying events in practice.
Q: What key partnerships or relationships has the firm built that provide the firm with pro bono opportunities? How did they come about?
As Principal of Bainbridge Legal, I am a long-term volunteer solicitor with the Toongabbie Legal Centre (TLC) and I have also been on the management committee of the Centre for a number of years. The TLC is not funded by government and is currently limited to providing a drop-in service (ie. the TLC does not have the capacity to take on cases and act as the solicitor on record for clients in long-term litigation matters).
Every Thursday night, I attend the TLC and provide over-the-counter advice as part of the drop-in service. I am usually joined by two other solicitors from the practice, Zoe Wanschers and Brendan Capplis. Every now and then a case comes to the TLC that requires more than over-the-counter advice and if we have capacity to take the case and we consider that it has merit then Bainbridge Legal will take carriage of the case on a pro bono basis.
Bainbridge Legal also has an ongoing relationship with Council on the Ageing NSW, Wesley Mission and Cancer Council who provide the public with referrals to our firm. Each of these organisations have a different methodology for referring clients. For example, the Council on the Ageing and Wesley Mission have organised “will days” where they charge the client $50 (payable to the charity rather than the firm). The Cancer Council tends to be more ad hoc as the clients typically are in poor health with many requiring a hospital visit.
Q: What criteria does the firm use to select the pro bono legal work it undertakes?
In weighing up whether we should take a case we take into account the client’s level of disadvantage, their financial position, any eligibility for Legal Aid, how urgently they need help and the subjective gravity of the case. In considering the gravity, we try to come at it from the client’s perspective – while a statement of claim seeking damages of $5,000 might be trivial to many, to someone struggling to feed and house their family it can be potentially earth-shattering.
Q: As a Foundation Signatory to the Target, the firm has an established pro bono practice going back at least a decade. How did the practice develop and grow?
We started as a one-man band with me operating as a sole practitioner in a small office in Blacktown. Over time the practice grew into larger premises in Blacktown and a second office in Parramatta. We currently have 10 paid staff and one law student doing part-time work experience.
Q: What is the firm’s approach to participation in pro bono? How is participation encouraged?
Participation by individual solicitors in the practice is largely voluntary.
We encourage our solicitors to participate in pro bono work as it is personally rewarding and provides excellent skills and experience.
Typically each solicitor is given the freedom to choose what, if any, pro bono matters they will take on at any one time. For urgent matters such as will drafting for terminally ill patients in palliative care, the work is usually delegated to the solicitor who is available at the time required.
Within the practice we have monthly staff meetings where we make a collective decision as to what pro bono matters we will take on and what charity events we will sponsor.
Q: What benefits does pro bono legal work provide to the lawyers who participate?
Pro bono work offers the personal benefit of knowing you are doing something for a person who would otherwise have no opportunity to access the service.
There is satisfaction in knowing that in many cases the pro bono client would not have achieved the desired result without representation.
There is also the benefit of experience in dealing with clients from disadvantaged backgrounds. In many cases the pro bono clients will have low levels of education, come from non-English speaking backgrounds, suffer from mental health issues or struggle with substance abuse. They may have difficulty organising paperwork and attending appointments on time (or at all). Learning to communicate with such clients is a valuable skill.
Q: What advice do you have for other small firms that are just starting their pro bono practice or struggling to take it to the next level?
Firstly, don’t bite off more than you can chew. It is better to properly service a small number of pro bono clients than deliver an inadequate service to a larger number.
Secondly, learn to say no. There is a limit to what you can do and you should never feel guilty for turning people away on grounds that you simply don’t have the capacity to take on additional pro-bono clients. In those cases it is helpful to have a handful of other services you can refer the person onto, such as a local Community Legal Centre.