This chapter is about what drives community legal centres (CLCs) to become involved in pro bono partnerships and how to effectively partner with them. More information for lawyers from community legal centres who are interested in partnering with pro bono providers to obtain assistance for their clients or their centre can be found at 2.3 ‘I am a community legal centre or not-for-profit organisation’.
12.1 COMMUNITY LEGAL CENTRES: AT A GLANCE
|What makes pro bono providers attractive to CLCs?
Community legal centres are independent, not-for-profit community-based organisations that exist to provide free legal services to the community, with a focus on economically and socially disadvantaged people who have the least access to justice.
The primary motivation of most, if not all, lawyers who choose to work in a CLC is a passionate interest in social justice. CLCs are keen to partner with pro bono providers primarily so that they can improve access to justice for their clients.
For CLCs, the service provided to clients is the number one priority. The development of the relationship with the firm is an incidental benefit, so the CLC would not enter into a partnership with a firm unless it could see how the project was going to improve services for clients. (CLC solicitor)
These pro bono providers may be lawyers who volunteer at a CLC on an individual basis. CLCs attract, train, utilise and retain a large number of high quality volunteers, a majority of whom are lawyers and law students.1 Lawyers and law firms may also assist CLCs by committing to assisting the CLC in a more formal partnership arrangement. The assistance given to CLCs by pro bono providers may involve delivering legal services to CLC clients directly, participating in community legal education and law reform advocacy. Pro bono providers may also help to build the capacity of a CLC by providing advice to the Centre or advising the Centre’s lawyers.2
It is positive when firms are interested in capacity building for the CLC as well as high profile cases that will raise the firm’s profile. Relationships are built between CLCs and firms by undertaking day-to-day work together. (CLC coordinator)
CLCs value partnerships with pro bono providers who share their interests in promoting social justice and improving access to justice, and who, in the context of providing pro bono assistance, will prioritise these interests over their usual commercial or business interests.
CLCs are part of the community, not-for-profit, and their primary goal is meeting the legal needs of their clients. Law firms represent commercial interests and companies that may exploit the people who are the clients of CLCs. (CLC solicitor)
Lawyers who come with existing experience and beliefs that do not match with the CLCs may not be suitable. I have had experience with employer firms where business interests are prioritised over the interests of justice. (CLC solicitor)
CLCs/Legal Aid focus on client face-to-face service delivery and their clients are always marginalised and disadvantaged, but firms can be more focused on winning the case and what’s in it for them (interesting work, skills development, giving something back). In one instance, on the threat of a court challenge that had the potential to overturn a landmark decision, the government department conceded before the matter was heard in court. There was a lot of discussion from the legal team about the loss of the opportunity to overturn the decision but it took about a week for the team to contact the client and advise that individual she had obtained a successful outcome. (PBRO manager)
Recognising and addressing cultural differences between CLCs and law firms can help them to work well together. One CLC Principal Solicitor observed that there can be different perceptions due to the different cultures of CLCs and ‘big city firms’. ‘There could be a perception from within the CLC that the firm might treat clients in a condescending way because the clients are not ‘paying clients’, not returning calls or following through with undertakings to take action.’
Different approaches of firms and CLCs are reflected in the work of the pro bono lawyers that staff the duty service. It can be tricky to manage the differences and the CLC needs to be careful to communicate about their philosophy: for example, the time they give to either party is different when there are no billables, safety of the family is paramount. (CLC principal solicitor)
Firm culture doesn’t encourage lawyers to say no to clients, preferring to be obtuse rather than be honest about saying no — it doesn’t have any prospects. We have noticed that secondees from firms have trouble with stopping themselves constantly saying yes to clients. (PBRO manager)
Pro bono coordinators are sometimes reluctant to say that a matter has not actually progressed. (CLC manager)
Many CLCs have voiced concerns about corporate lawyers not meeting the needs of the clients (… explaining why something can/cannot be done, using plain English, especially in letters of engagement etc, giving non-legal alternatives, referring to counselling services, spending time doing non-legal work eg, filling out forms, listening to the client’s story and concerns, etc). (PBRO manager)
Many CLCs have taken positive steps to manage these cultural differences by providing firms and their volunteer lawyers with information about how the CLC works before partnering with them, or during the induction process for pro bono lawyers. The CLC information includes the underlying philosophy of CLCs and how this impacts on the way they work. They invest significantly in training and skilling their volunteers and pro bono partners to ensure they are well-prepared to provide relevant high-quality legal assistance that is culturally appropriate. See, for example, case study on the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency and Ashurst at 22.5.1.
We communicate with firms and volunteer solicitors before partnering with them about what it will be like to volunteer and what the philosophy of the CLC is. We are preparing a brochure that will tell firms what the CLC does and what volunteering involves. We provide volunteer solicitors with a proper induction and continuous communication to ensure that they understand and reflect the philosophy and approach of the CLC. Firms/volunteers are not attractive to CLCs unless they understand where clients are coming from. (CLC principal solicitor)
It is also helpful, especially for CLC staff who have not experienced a large firm environment, for firms to provide CLCs with a realistic picture of the firm’s motivation for doing pro bono, its approach to pro bono legal work, and the constraints that pro bono coordinators and lawyers work within.
Relationships of trust are essential. There are barriers to overcome between pro bono providers and CLCs. Relationships of trust are needed. Open communication is essential. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
Firms do not seem to tell us the real reasons why they are refusing a referral. We would prefer firms to be honest about their reasons so we can better target referrals in the future. If you are busy, say you have no capacity rather than it doesn’t fit your guidelines. (PBRO manager)
Is the firm doing it to improve staff retention, to be involved in law reform, to keep up with the other firms pro bono numbers? (CLC solicitor)
Day-to-day exposure to CLC clients and issues they face provides CLC lawyers with specialised skills in particular areas of law and practice that other lawyers may not have developed. CLCs seek an equal partnership with pro bono providers who can complement, and also recognise, the value of the CLC lawyers’ skills and experience, and where necessary, develop some of these skills.
CLCs find it challenging when firms treat pro bono assistance as a gift to CLCs rather than an opportunity for an equal partnership. (CLC coordinator)
There needs to be an equal relationship. CLCs need to be recognised by firms as doing more than just bringing in the pro bono work. People working in CLCs have developed skills that other lawyers do not have — dealing with disadvantaged and difficult clients — but some are also very skilled technical lawyers. (CLC solicitor)
Corporate firms are not always fully aware of the additional skills that CLC/Legal Aid lawyers have developed when dealing with clients who are seriously distressed, traumatised, mentally ill, and experiencing multiple forms of disadvantage, and that these are skills that are required when working with these clients. Often it is only after you have dealt with a client who is distressed and threatening to harm themselves that you realise you are entirely unprepared for that side of it. (PBRO manager)
We value a relationship of trust between the firm and the CLC where the firms will trust the CLC’s assessment of whether a matter is in the public interest. (CLC coordinator)
An aspect of respecting the CLC and not ‘treating pro bono like a gift’, is providing high quality, committed staff whose skills and preferences are a match for the model and tasks involved in the project. A senior solicitor coordinating Redfern Legal Centre’s Employment Law Advocacy Scheme with Clayton Utz said that ‘the firm provided an excellent team of secondees who are smart, committed and reliable.’ See case study at 22.5.3.
There have been many successful pro bono partnerships between CLCs and law firms, with many of the lawyers undertaking pro bono work possessing the same level of commitment and personal belief in social justice as their CLC partners. Many vulnerable and disadvantaged people who are the clients of CLCs stand to gain from the legal assistance resources that flow from effective partnerships.
Some CLCs can be over-protective of their territory, seeing themselves as the only carriers of social justice. Working towards positive relationships can yield real benefits for clients. (CLC manager)
There are peak bodies of CLCs in each state and territory which may be able to provide assistance to pro bono providers and CLCs which are interested in pro bono partnerships.3
National Association of Community Legal Centres, Working Collaboratively: Community Legal Centres and Volunteers (2014), at http://www.naclc.org.au/resources/NACLC_VOUNTEER2014_WEB.pdf.
1 National Association of Community Legal Centres, Working Collaboratively: Community Legal Centres and Volunteers (2014) p 1, http://www.naclc.org.au/resources/NACLC_VOUNTEER2014_WEB.pdf.
2 Of the 148 CLCs that responded to the NACLC National Census of CLCs 2013, 50,859 hours were contributed in one year by pro bono partnerships, of which 92 CLCs reported that 37.2% benefited from lawyers providing direct services to clients, 33.1% from lawyers providing advice to the centre, and 22.3% from specialist lawyers advising centre lawyers. See National Association of Community Legal Centres, Working Collaboratively: Community Legal Centres and Pro Bono Partnerships (2014) p 9, http://www.naclc.org.au/resources/NACLC_probono_WEB.pdf.
3 For the contact details of the CLC association in each state and territory, see the National Association of Community Legal Centres website at http://www.naclc.org.au/cb_pages/state_associations.php.