Issue 123: November 2017
Q&A with Peter Seidel, Arnold Bloch Leibler
Congratulations to the pro bono team at Arnold Bloch Leibler on winning the 2017 Lawyers Weekly Pro Bono Program of the Year Award. We asked ABL public interest law partner Peter Seidel to tell us about the firm’s pro bono program. This article kicks off a new series of Q&A pieces focusing on some of the outstanding pro bono programs run by National Pro Bono Aspirational Target signatories, as part of the Target’s ten-year anniversary celebrations. ABL are a Foundation Signatory to the Target.
Q: What pro bono legal work does ABL do, in terms of the firm’s focus areas and the type of work involved and why did ABL choose these focus areas?
A: Arnold Bloch Leibler’s pro bono efforts focus on supporting communities, individuals, charitable bodies and not-for-profits in the areas of anti-discrimination, particularly racial and disability discrimination. We likewise support cultural and religious — particularly Jewish — causes, as well as Indigenous and environmental causes, protecting culture and country.
As a firm we abhor racism, inequality and environmental destruction and we stand against these things by pursuing test cases for relevant charitable organisations and grass roots movements, and by providing legal advice and representation to organisations and community causes that are ‘on the ground’ working in these areas.
Q: What impact does the firm’s pro bono work have on its pro bono clients or on public interest issues?
A: The impact of our work is best illustrated by our support towards Aboriginal communities, which work has been a large focus for us for over 25 years now.
One of the firm’s central objectives is to help our clients overcome legal and societal barriers that serve to entrench the status quo of systemic Indigenous disempowerment, and we support Indigenous-led initiatives to identify, address and overcome challenges that ultimately affect the health and overall well-being of communities.
A great example of this is our recent work with the campaigning arts organisation Big hART and the family of Albert Namatjira, to see the return of his copyright to our client, the Namatjira Legacy Trust, where it rightfully belongs.
For 34 years Albert Namatjira’s copyright was controlled by Legend Press and Albert Namatjira’s family were denied any control or revenue from his work. This wrong has now been righted.
Q: What key partnerships or relationships has ABL built that provide the firm with pro bono opportunities? How did they come about?
A: We advise more than 150 public interest law clients each year. We act for philanthropic families, foundations and the like, as well as for charities doing good work in the community and often seeking to attract philanthropic funds. The work comes from existing fee paying and pro bono clients, word of mouth and Justice Connect referrals, as well as through the partners, lawyers and staff of the firm.
Q: What criteria does ABL use to select the pro bono legal work it undertakes?
A: We take into account the significance of the matter to the law and to the administration of justice — the greater the significance, the greater the reason for us to take it on. We also consider fundamental justice questions, like the balancing of liberty and equality of treatment before the law. Numbers are also an important consideration — how many people will be affected by the outcome? We also consider whether acting in the matter will create a conflict.
Once we’ve done the necessary due diligence, if there’s a natural fit between us and the client, we commit for the long haul. We value highly our longstanding relationships with all our clients. We do not consider them legal problems to be solved.
They are our partners and our collaborators, going shoulder-to-shoulder with us to effect change for the better.
Q: How large is the pro bono legal team and what roles do they play?
A: ABL has a dedicated public interest law practice consisting of a partner, a senior associate and a lawyer. To complement that we ensure that public interest law work is spread out across the whole of the firm. Our work with public interest law clients encompasses all major practice group areas in the firm — including tax, wealth creation and management, commercial, employment, competition law, litigation, IP and property.
Q: Getting lawyers, and particularly partners, involved in pro bono can be a challenge. What strategies does ABL use to encourage participation?
A: An ABL lawyer does not need encouragement. Our lawyers are passionate about and proud of our pro bono culture. Each and every person at Arnold Bloch Leibler contributes – directly and indirectly – to its success. We are very proud of our pro bono culture.
Our whole philosophy on public interest law is that it’s two-way – we get just as many benefits from the client as they get from us.
Q: How do lawyers balance pro bono legal work with the demands of commercial work?
A: We make no distinction at all between pro bono work and fee-paying work. We do not cap our pro bono commitments generally or in relation to particular clients and matters. We simply expect our lawyers to commit to a fair proportion of pro bono work each year and to prioritise according to the urgency of the matter, not whether it is fee-paying or pro bono.
Q: What benefits does pro bono legal work provide to the lawyers who participate?
A: Like all legal work, pro bono legal work can involve matters of a mundane kind, but often the work is anything but that. Regularly, it’s the kind of work that motivated us to study law in the first place. The effect of and benefits associated with doing this work can be profound, from attracting the very brightest and best grads, to re-enthusing lawyers about practising law, to helping to skill up in new areas, to developing whole new perspectives on societal issues.
Q: What advice do you have for firms that are just starting a pro bono practice or struggling to take it to the next level?
A: Tap into and build on the existing culture of the firm and go to places and causes in the community where the firm’s existing clients and networks take you. Commit to causes and clients for the long haul. Enjoy the journey and honour your clients by acknowledging the many associated benefits to the firm of doing pro bono work, to truly make the relationship two-way.
STORIES IN THIS ISSUE:
AUSTRALIAN PRO BONO NEWS