Following on from relationships, the strength of the pro bono culture within an organisation providing pro bono assistance is the next most important factor determining whether a pro bono program or project will work well.
The culture of a firm is more of an issue than size and resource constraints. There can be resistance within firms to doing pro bono work. (PBRO manager)
While some partners have a strong personal commitment to pro bono, there are varying levels of support from firm management for pro bono work. Pro bono hours do not count towards billable targets and are discounted by 25% in the timesheet system. It can be seen as one of the many non-billable demands on lawyers. Pro bono opportunities have not been centrally advertised. There are some lawyers at the firm who are not interested in pro bono and would not necessarily welcome unsolicited emails about it. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
- 4.1 The importance of leadership support
- 4.2 Large firms and the impact of corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs
4.1 THE IMPORTANCE OF LEADERSHIP SUPPORT
The absence of support from a firm’s leadership can not only make it very difficult to obtain resources, but can also affect relationships and the quality of work: for example, because work is de-prioritised and therefore not completed in a timely manner, or because the junior lawyers doing pro bono work are not properly supervised.
Ensuring the quality of pro bono work is an ongoing and universal challenge for pro bono practices. The message needs to come from the partner level down given they are supervising the work. We try to entrench a culture of quality within the firm, drumming it into our grads that work for pro bono clients needs to be at the same level of quality as for commercial clients and requiring lawyers undertaking pro bono work to complete a closure report in the same way they would for a commercial file. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
Many firms do not have a culture that embraces or prioritises pro bono work. Some pro bono coordinators struggle to obtain approval from partners in the firm to take on matters/projects that they would like to do. (CLC coordinator)
Some junior lawyers have said that they do not hear anything about pro bono opportunities (despite it being part of the promotion that has attracted them to the firm) and do not have any opportunities to do it. (PBRO manager)
Some secondees have been told by partners in firms that are not supportive of pro bono that doing a secondment will be a black mark in their career. We recently lost a secondee this way. (PBRO manager)
Consultations with law firms indicate that the culture of a law firm often follows the attitude of its leadership, and therefore having or cultivating the support of the firm’s leadership is very important. For example the Director of the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre (NCYLC), Matthew Keeley, explained that their Cyber Project works well because there is support for the project within King & Wood Mallesons (K&WM) at a senior management level (see case study at 26.5.1). One large firm pro bono coordinator suggested that it was helpful to understand the personal interests of the firm’s partners when trying to build support within a firm for particular areas of need.
Building and continuing to encourage a culture that is supportive of pro bono within a firm is easier if strategically targeting the personal interests of partners. Ask partners about the causes they feel passionate about. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
The positive impact of having leadership that is supportive of pro bono and a strong pro bono culture is equally relevant for smaller firms. For example, Ern Phang, the solicitor director of Phang Legal, a small law firm in Parramatta, was awarded the Law Society President’s Award at the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW’s 2010 Justice Awards1 in recognition of his success in building a firm culture with a strong focus on community service. Over the years, his small team of lawyers has assisted the Law Society Pro Bono Scheme by providing advice and representation to disadvantaged individuals, and has supported social enterprises in partnership with the Australian Pro Bono Centre and Parramatta City Council. Ern also supports various community and not for profit organisations with legal advice and representation, as well as being a volunteer director. ‘With an interest in good corporate governance, Ern has been the catalyst behind the culture change in several organisations, guiding them towards a more self-sustainable model with a focus on improving the social dividend.’2
Where support does exist at a leadership level, and the partners and managers are actively involved and interested in the pro bono practice, this can lead to innovative projects with successful results. Solicitors at Caxton Legal Centre Inc, for example, have observed that individual leaders who are committed to pro bono and have innovative ideas can really influence the development of pro bono.
4.2 LARGE FIRMS AND THE IMPACT OF CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY (CSR) PROGRAMS
Several pro bono coordinators explained that there can be different cultures in different offices of the same firm and that it was important to take the time to develop a program that fits not only the firm’s culture, but the culture of the particular office.
A national program needs to have common features but needs to suit the size of the office and work with the culture in the specific office, eg what might work in the Sydney office will not necessarily work in the Canberra office. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
Ultimately it is essential for a pro bono coordinator to understand what works for the culture of the firm, to have a central coordination and reporting point for senior people in the firm. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
Special Counsel, Pro Bono and Community at K&WM, Jane Farnsworth, explained that having charitable targets has helped to build that firm’s pro bono culture. K&WM surveyed staff across core areas to find out the areas of need where staff had an interest and would therefore be a good fit for the firm, following up with one-on-one meetings with a staff consultant. Staff nominated children and young people at risk, and alleviating poverty and improving community welfare, as being the areas of need that they felt were a good match for the firm and should be a consistent focus.
The firm’s pro bono program is embedded into the culture of the firm by having focus areas, which make it clear to everyone within the firm what the pro bono program is trying to achieve. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
There are differing views in the pro bono community regarding whether pro bono legal and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs should be kept separate. Many are concerned about the risk that limited firm resources will be spent undertaking community service work, rather than providing pro bono legal assistance which is a need that only lawyers can address. However, other pro bono coordinators, including Jane Farnsworth, expressed the view that the synergy between pro bono and CSR programs can result in a greater impact than either program separately. She explained that, in her experience at K&WM, not only does CSR not detract from professional responsibility, but in fact ‘the longevity of a pro bono program depends on being able to embed a culture of pro bono, which is something that CSR assists with’.
Australian Pro Bono Centre, Australian Pro Bono Manual, LexisNexis, Sydney, 2016, Chapter 1.4 Promoting a pro bono culture.
1 Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales, 2010 Justice Awards (14 October 2010) Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales http://www.lawfoundation.net.au/ljf/app/5D46D54268F6F251CA2577BC001FA511.html.