The 2016FY marks the first time since 20113 that, as a group, signatories to the Aspirational Target have met the Target of at least 35 hours per lawyer per year, reporting an average of 36 pro bono hours per lawyer. This represents an 8.3% increase on the pro bono hours reported in 2015FY.
“There has been growth across the board”, said John Corker, CEO of the Australian Pro Bono Centre. “Of the 37 large firms (that is, firms with 50 or more FTE lawyers) that reported in both 2015FY and 2016FY, 26 reported an increase in pro bono hours per lawyer, and 17 reported growth of more than 20%. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen this level of growth.”
“In a tightening legal services market, it is a tribute to the dedication of these firms that they have maintained and grown their pro bono programs despite today’s competitive challenges”, said Corker.
Within this cohort, the performance of firms with 201-449 FTE lawyers is especially strong, as demonstrated by seven (out of twelve) firms meeting or exceeding the Target this year, up from only three (out of ten) firms last year.
Other factors in the overall growth of pro bono include more firms being strategic about their pro bono legal and community investment plans, new opportunities for firms to become involved through clearing houses and pro bono referral schemes, and more work being done in areas of high unmet legal need such as migration, where there is little government assistance available.
The report, prepared by the Australian Pro Bono Centre, provides a snapshot of pro bono legal work in Australia in 2016FY. The report is based on data provided by law firms, solicitors and barristers who agree to use their best efforts to achieve a target of at least 35 hours of pro bono legal work per lawyer per year, and includes 18 of Australia’s 20 largest firms.4
“With the Target now in its tenth year, these results show that its influence as a driver of pro bono performance continues to grow. The fact that almost half of the Target signatories either met or exceeded it in 2016FY demonstrates that the Target remains well-positioned as a benchmark for the conduct of pro bono legal work across the entire Australian legal profession. It provides firms with a robust and achievable goal, encouraging them to support and develop their pro bono legal culture, practices and programs,” Corker said.
The 31 small law firms (fewer than 50 lawyers) that reported this year performed an average of 16.3 pro bono hours per lawyer, with only 30% meeting the Target. The reported pro bono hours per lawyer decreased by 27% from 2015FY. The number of small firms expecting to meet the Target next year was 40%, a decrease of 9.4% on last year.
“Thirty-one small firms is only a small sample but the results this year may reflect the increasing pressure that small firms face to survive commercially. Small firms don’t have the same flexibility or capacity as large firms to maintain a pro bono practice, and so their results tend to be more volatile,” he said.
Performance across the 77 reporting firms was still quite uneven. “There is clearly room for growth in pro bono legal work in a number of firms. These results will allow firms to benchmark themselves against their peers”, said Corker.
“We encourage firms that are looking to develop their pro bono programs to seek assistance from the Centre, from other law firms with developed pro bono practices, or from a pro bono clearing house or referral scheme”.
The Target was developed by the National Pro Bono Resource Centre (now the Australian Pro Bono Centre) in 2006 and incorporates, in part language developed by the US Pro Bono Institute and utilized in its Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge SM. That language is used with the specific permission of the Institute and cannot be further utilized, copied, disseminated, or adapted, in whole or in part, without prior written permission from the Institute. To request permission please contact the Institute at [email protected].