This month the Centre caught up with Julie Robb, pro bono partner at Banki Haddock Fiora (BHF), about the benefits and challenges of developing a pro bono policy in a smaller firm. BHF is a boutique firm in Sydney specialising in media and intellectual property.
Tell us how you came to be involved in BHF’s pro bono practice
My interest in pro bono goes back to my earliest days of practice, at Allens, when promoting “pro bono” as a legitimate part of practice was a new idea. When I moved to the Arts Law Centre of Australia, the national legal centre for the arts, it wasn’t much of a stretch to assume the role of pro bono partner at BHF. Until quite recently this meant being the contact person for external referral agencies (PILCH from 2009 and then Justice Connect, and the Arts Law Centre of Australia), managing that work and trying to keep track of work being done elsewhere in the firm under the pro bono moniker but without any definition or structure.
When did the firm recognise the need for a pro bono policy?
Although the firm’s partners have always had a commitment to doing pro bono work, the need for a formal policy was recognised only quite recently, prompted by:
- a growing awareness of the extent of free/reduced fee work done on an individual partner, ad hoc, basis
- the firm’s growth (it is now a practice of over 30 lawyers) which made it increasingly difficult to manage pro bono work without process and transparency, and
- the firm’s work for Commonwealth agencies, and the prerequisite of a pro bono commitment to be on the Legal Services Multi User List.
In fact, the policy has only recently been formalised.
How did you go about developing a policy?
The first step in moving from working ad hoc to a principled, measureable policy was to conduct an audit of all of the work being done in the firm on anything other than a full fee basis. This obviously made methodological sense, but it also involved the whole firm — which is a prerequisite to the effectiveness of any pro bono policy.
Next was discussion at partner level about the difference between offering “mates’ rates”, which is an individual partner’s decision, and pro bono work, which requires an agreed and united approach.
This issue wasn’t entirely straightforward: in its media practice the firm acts almost exclusively for defendant publishers and broadcasters, and thereby has a commitment to freedom of speech. And given that we act for nearly every writer and composer in the country via our work for copyright collecting societies, the IP partners are dedicated to the (unmoneyed and routinely exploited) creator sector. So partners are often approached to assist on a “favoured” basis – and are happy to oblige – but this does not necessarily qualify as pro bono work.
The goal was to have a pro bono program that fits the firm’s values and profile, and is principled, focussed and measurable. Although there is a range of views about the role and importance of pro bono (for example, I think it should be a condition of renewal of practising certificate, but some of my partners see this as excessive) all signed up to a policy that acknowledges the provision of pro bono legal services as a responsibility arising from the privileges of membership of the profession, and that providing legal pro bono is a way for the firm to demonstrate its commitment to this principle.
How does the policy operate in practice?
I am the pro bono partner; Nancy Campisi, a senior associate, is the co-ordinator. We report periodically to the partnership and the firm as to the work being done, and by whom. There are criteria to be satisfied: the work must involve a matter of public interest, or aim to improve laws or the legal system in a way that will benefit marginalised or disadvantaged groups, or be in an area of the firm’s specialist practice.
And there is a formal application process, including applying the criteria, and checking for conflicts and for lack of means to pursue elsewhere. The aim is to have an even spread of pro bono work throughout the firm, with at least one pro bono matter for each fee earner each year.
How has this shaped the type of pro bono work you do?
Ultimately, the partners arrived at a dual focus: a mix of a natural extension of the work we do, in the sectors we focus on, together with unfiltered altruism, reflected in taking referrals from the Arts Law Centre of Australia on the one hand, and Justice Connect on the other.
Most recently, we’ve had the opportunity to work with Justice Connect and the Human Rights Law Centre on asylum seeker work. This is probably our greatest pro bono achievement to date: although not migration agents or even administrative law specialists, we have filed ten High Court applications, supporting the work of the Human Rights Law Centre in seeking to restrain the removal of detainees brought to Australia for a “temporary purpose” back to Nauru or Manus Island. This work has enabled several solicitors and paralegals across the firm to participate, thereby engendering a sense of ownership and pride — of making a difference.
What’s the impact of the policy and how do you see it developing?
The BHF pro bono policy is new, and will of course develop over time. An issue that we need to maintain vigilance over is how to reconcile the denial of access to pro bono services by religious, political, sporting and cultural events with the fact that the partners are variously committed to these; how to convey the message that the pro bono policy is avowedly agnostic, but that we also value “community”, which may be inherently partisan.
In recent years I’ve been struck by how important a firm’s pro bono program is for newly admitted practitioners and their choice of law firm. I’d like to think this is a timely reaffirmation of the fundamental distinction between a profession and a (mere) business. In any case, it’s very satisfying to see the privilege of professional practice at work, and the way our pro bono efforts boost the firm’s esprit de corps.