Brooke Massender, Head of Pro Bono & Citizenship, Australia & Asia at Herbert Smith Freehills, reports on her experience of the annual Pro Bono Institute conference.
For many years I observed with more than a tinge of envy the annual pilgrimage of Australian pro bono leaders to the PBI conference in Washington D.C. and I have been eager to go along and experience US pro bono culture firsthand. It is a great opportunity to meet other global pro bono practitioners and put faces to the names of the PBI team and the regulars on the APBCo chatterfeed.
This year there was an additional pre-conference, Gathering on Global Pro Bono: Honouring Esther Lardent’s Legacy, hosted by DLA Piper. Facilitated by Fiona McLeay, the dialogue highlighted notable global access to justice projects and emerging trends such as the use of technology to advance access to justice. There were also a number of small group sessions to go deeper on common areas of interest such as legal education and capacity building projects, responding to the refugee crisis and combating violence against women. Reed Smith’s on the ground response to the refugee crisis in Greece was a particularly interesting example of developing a major focus and deep expertise in one area.
More than 300 participants from law firms, in-house teams, and public interest organisations from around the world then attended the annual PBI conference. Sessions covered a wide array of topics, including new challenges to civil rights and liberties, as well as recurring areas of interest such as pro bono credit and maintaining engagement. I particularly enjoyed kicking off with the Law Firm Pro Bono 101 session. Whilst it was geared towards newcomers to the pro bono sector, it was a really useful reminder of some of the basics that we all know but sometimes neglect to pay enough attention to, for example the ‘comms’ beast that always seems to need more feeding. The session ‘Everything you want to know about UK pro bono but are afraid to ask’ came in very handy as preparation for a visit to London the following week. Turns out I was not afraid to ask lots and lots of questions.
It came as no great surprise that the dialogue was dominated by all things Trump related. In almost every session we invariably ended up discussing some aspect of the new administration from travel bans to legal services funding cuts. Considering the prevailing challenges and crisis state that many of our US colleagues are operating under, they approached the conference with remarkable collegiality and generosity of time and spirit. At the roundtable for experienced pro bono leaders there was much discussion about the need to continue to resource long term projects and partnerships in the face of the demand for immigration work in response to the Trump travel ban. I felt honoured to be sitting amongst a community of practitioners that had raced to airports and challenged the orders in emergency court proceedings. It was a timely reminder that sometimes all that is between a client and personal disaster is a dedicated pro bono lawyer.
I’d recommend the experience to anyone who has not yet had the opportunity to attend. Look out for next year’s program, scheduled for 21-23 February 2018.
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