This month we caught up with Heidi Nash-Smith, Partner at Wotton + Kearney and winner of the Lawyers Weekly “Women in Law Pro Bono Award” in 2014, about the benefits and challenges of managing a pro bono practice in a smaller firm.
Tell us a bit about the pro bono practice.
In January 2012 I was given the opportunity to head up and develop Wotton + Kearney’s pro bono and CSR practice.
Over the last 3 years we have established pro bono practices in each of our Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane offices. The work we’ve been involved in includes assisting asylum seekers with judicial review applications, providing advice to not-for-profit organisations, helping members of the Stolen Generation to access records about their time in out-of-home care and providing advice to unrepresented litigants in the Federal Court.
So far our CSR program has taken us to Cambodia, to build houses for an impoverished Cambodian community and to rural New South Wales to participate in a 495km cycle ride to raise awareness and much needed funds for Royal Far West, a children’s charity based in Manly.
This year we have partnered with the Black Dog Institute, a world leader in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses such as depression and bipolar disease. This partnership provides Wotton + Kearney with an opportunity to fundraise and advocate for the charity, while being educated about the many issues surrounding mental health.
What are some of the benefits/challenges of managing a pro bono practice in a smaller firm?
It is extremely rewarding to see the pro bono culture develop at Wotton + Kearney. Year on year we see more lawyers, and different lawyers, getting involved in pro bono work. In the last financial year we had a 43% increase in the number of lawyers working on pro bono matters.
As a smaller firm, we do have some restrictions on our ability to take on pro bono matters, primarily due to lawyer capacity. In this regard, our relationship with Justice Connect and QPILCH has been instrumental in enabling us to increase our participation in pro bono. The Federal Court Self Representation Service is a great example of this as it has allowed lawyers to provide direct assistance to pro bono clients on a rostered basis, which works well in a team with more limited capacity to take on pro bono casework.
Another advantage for a smaller firm of partnering with organisations like Justice Connect and QPILCH is that they provide focused training. This enables our lawyers to get involved in projects outside of our usual practice areas and develop new skills and areas of expertise.
How did you become involved in pro bono work?
I am strongly committed to social justice issues – ingrained in me from a young age by my family. The day I started working as a lawyer my mum moved to Azerbaijan to pursue charitable work and set up a school.
I quickly became involved in pro bono matters at work and was fortunate to be able to spend a 6 month secondment staffing a legal advice clinic at a women’s refuge. Since then I have looked for opportunities to contribute to the wider community and I am fortunate that Wotton + Kearney has supported me in this.
What did your “Women in Law Pro Bono Award” mean to you and the firm?
I was extremely honoured to be the recipient of the “Women in Law Pro Bono Award”. There are so many lawyers, male and female, who contribute a great deal to pro bono. To be nominated by my firm for my work and then recognised by my peers in the industry – its very special. The very existence of the award highlights the importance of pro bono to the profession and hopefully encourages others to get involved and contribute.
What advice would you give to other lawyers interested in developing a pro bono practice at their firm?
Do it! The pro bono community is extremely supportive and very willing to give advice and to share their experiences of developing their own practice. This is invaluable when you are starting out from scratch. I also made great use of the Australian Pro Bono Manual developed by the Australian Pro Bono Centre – an amazing resource.