‘Low bono’ legal services for impact investment:
How Corrs Chambers Westgarth is developing new pro bono initiatives
National law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth has a long and proud history of helping those suffering entrenched disadvantage through its Pro Bono & Community program. Newly appointed chairman of the program, Melbourne Partner Jeremy King, is looking to further develop the firm’s pro bono initiatives in 2016 and beyond – not just in traditional areas of pro bono work, but in new and innovative types of pro bono service delivery.
Corrs sees being ‘generous of spirit’ as an integral part of its future success as a firm. As a result, Corrs invests heavily in both its dedicated pro bono program and its charitable activities (including volunteering and matched giving). It was recently named as one of Australia’s top 10 most charitable companies (based on the proportion of employees involved in workplace giving) by the Australian Charities Fund – and was the only law firm to make the list.
Since taking on the role of Corrs’ Pro Bono & Community Chairman in February 2016, Partner Jeremy King has reactivated each office’s pro bono committee, and is focused on ensuring that the firm’s pro bono program continues to expand and develop – not just in the more traditional areas of pro bono work, but also in newer, innovative types of pro bono service delivery.
This focus has seen King and his Pro Bono Committee decide to dedicate a proportion of its pro bono budget to working in the field of social finance and impact investment, including providing pro bono services to ‘for profit, for purpose’ social enterprises, venture philanthropists, and bidders for social benefit bonds being procured by State governments.
Now entering the financial mainstream, impact investment offers financial products like private equity funds, social benefit bonds and green bonds arranged by major financial institutions. While still in its early stages in Australia, all indications are that impact investment is an area that is only set to grow – and once it has, King and his team at Corrs will be right at the forefront, having already built market-leading credentials in the area:
- Corrs advised NAB and ACSO on a social impact investment for Corrective Services NSW focusing on recidivism. This was the first time that an Australian bank has invested directly in a social impact investment, and the first time that ACSO has participated in the market at all. This is the third social impact investment that has reached contractual close in Australia, and the program could potentially run for 10 years, having an immensely positive impact on the lives of approximately 4,000 parolees.
- Corrs is also advising a bidder to the Queensland State Government in its pilot social impact bond program, again in the area of recidivism.
- Corrs acted for Save the Children Australia in relation to their joint venture with Deakin University to create the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership.
- Corrs advised the NSW Federation of Housing Associations on its business case for Australia’s affordable housing financial intermediary, Australia’s equivalent to the Housing Finance Corporation in the UK.
As the above examples demonstrate, the firm is looking to help foster the social impact bond market, and assist emerging social entrepreneurs, by advising such clients on a ‘low bono’ rather than a pro bono basis. This essentially means that clients are offered a deeply-discounted fixed fee for the legal work that Corrs does, while the remainder of their support is provided on a pro bono basis.
Corrs has chosen to take this approach because, while they are aware that neither NFPs participating in the social impact bond market nor social entrepreneurs in start-up mode should pay full “rack rates”, they believe that sustainable businesses being operated for a profit need to pay some form of fee for service. Since launching this scheme, King has been deploying resources to assist start-up social entrepreneurs in the areas of mental health, homelessness, education and disability services.
In addition to its work in the area of social finance and impact investment, the Corrs pro bono program under King is also dedicated to continuing more traditional forms of pro bono work. Corrs regularly takes on pro bono matters from Justice Connect, QPILCH, the Aboriginal Legal Service (WA) and community legal centres, and also has cherished pro bono relationships with clients such as Oxfam, The Big Issue, Ardoch Youth Foundation and Hagar Australia. Corrs’ relationship with Oxfam dates back 25 years, and its relationship with The Big Issue has been going strong for 20 years.
King believes that Corrs is on the right track:
I am confident that the market for social finance and impact investment will grow. Governments are facing the competing pressures of fiscal constraint and increasing demand for social services. NFPs and charities need to be financially savvy and sophisticated in order to be attractive to donors. And Australia’s banks and listed corporates are realising that sustainability and social licence are vital elements to their survival. My hope is that the impact investment market grows to scale quickly so that Corrs can continue to align its passion with purpose.
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