This month we caught up with Michael Wood, Pro Bono Partner at Simpson Grierson, one of New Zealand’s largest law firms to learn more about the pro bono landscape in New Zealand and pro bono legal work at Simpson Grierson.
You have recently commented that you view undertaking pro bono as part and parcel of being a lawyer. Tells us a bit about where your commitment to pro bono legal work comes from.
Pro bono work is a professional responsibility of all lawyers. Personally it is an area that I feel very strongly about. It is incredibly important to our staff and clients that we give back to the community.
In my role as Pro Bono Partner I get to ensure that we are focussing our efforts in areas where our help is most needed. This is hugely satisfying, especially when you see the benefits gained by those who may otherwise not have had access to legal advice.
The long term partnerships we have created with organisations such as Youthline and Orakei School are particularly rewarding as you can see how working together in the long term significantly contributes to positive social change. It also creates avenues to be involved in global initiatives like the Global Poverty Project and the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children which are particularly fulfilling.
How would you describe the pro bono culture in New Zealand?
I would say the culture is strong and growing. To my knowledge the large New Zealand law firms each have formal pro bono programmes in place. Some firms have started reporting externally on their pro bono work as part of their wider corporate social responsibility initiatives. We also see many firms more actively seeking pro bono work whereas in the past there was more of a “let them come to us” approach. There is a general acceptance of how important it is for law firms to be seen to be ‘giving back’.
New Zealand does have a legal CSR Network where the larger firms come together to share knowledge and provide mutual assistance. Part of what this network aims to do is to operate as an informal referral system for pro bono work that any member can’t do – because of conflict issues for example.
What are some of the challenges for undertaking pro bono legal work in New Zealand?
A proper pro bono programme does need to operate in the same way as any other practice area of the firm. This requires management support and reporting for example, which may be a challenge for some firms. Also, there are probably less developed referral networks than I understand exist in other countries, so that areas of unmet legal need are not necessarily getting the attention they could be.
Are you able to provide us with some background on the Simpson Grierson pro bono program?
Our national pro bono programme is coordinated out of the Auckland office, where I am based. In a jurisdiction as small as New Zealand we can easily coordinate everything from there. However, pro bono work is carried out by lawyers in each of our Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch offices.
Part of my role as Pro Pono Partner is to vet each pro bono request to ensure that it meets accepted pro bono criteria. A key parameter for us is that qualifying pro bono work must be actual legal work. This means that a lawyer volunteering in a non-legal capacity, for example as a board member for a non-profit organisation or assisting it in an administrative capacity, or mentoring young people at a school, is not considered qualifying work.
Our pro bono policy states that pro bono assistance is not available to the following:
- Private educational institutions.
- Cultural organisations or sporting clubs, unless they can satisfactorily demonstrate some specific community interest such as a focus on disadvantaged people which justifies pro bono assistance. It is not enough simply to show that the organisation or club is a local NFPO.
- Religious organisations in relation to their core religious activities. However essentially secular community activities conducted by a religious organisation can be considered for pro bono assistance.
- Matters which are undertaken for business development purposes.
The components of our pro bono programme include case work, law reform and on site advice provided at community hubs such as community law centres and citizen advice bureaus.
We have the ability and resources to provide pro bono legal advice across every area of commercial law. We do however find that advice in certain areas is requested more than others. Examples are advice for the setting up of charitable organisations (including tax advice), employment advice, property related matters, and work in the area of legal reform.
Pro bono clients receive the same quality of service provided to all firm clients. Partners are responsible for the proper supervision of all pro bono files. Staff are recognised for their pro bono work during the performance review and remuneration review processes. At this stage we don’t have a specific target, however informally we are looking at a bench mark of 35 hours per lawyer per year.
How does your firm source pro bono legal work?
Our pro bono practice is targeted towards acting for disadvantaged people through the organisations which support them. In the 12 month period July 2014 – June 2015, we provided over $820,000 of pro bono services and assisted 44 organisations on national and international projects, including Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Centre NGO, International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, Auckland Community Law Centre, Himalayan Trust, and The Refugee Family Reunification Trust.
Referral networks are an important source of work, including pro bono work. We have a number of referral networks. For example, we are the exclusive member firm for New Zealand of Lex Mundi, the world’s leading network of independent law firms. Through their Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation we are able to work on projects aimed at high-impact, sustainable social change.
We are also a member of TrustLaw. TrustLaw is the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro bono legal programme which connects the best law firms and corporate legal teams around the world with high-impact NGOs and social enterprises. A recent example we have participated in is the project on an international comparison of victims’ rights regimes for the Beijing Women’s Rights centre.
Our international affiliations with many other law firms globally also provides us with pro bono work opportunities.
Simpson Grierson recently celebrated 10 years of supporting Youthline, an organisation that works to provide support to young people and their families. Can you tell us about how Simpson Grierson began its partnership with Youthline and the type of support the firm has provided?
In the first year of our community partnership (2004), we assisted Youthline through the provision of a world first text counselling service. Ten years on Youthline has answered over 1.5 million texts and taken their learnings out into the world supporting other countries to establish text counselling services. Our relationship flourished and we’ve been supporting Youthline as one of our main community partners providing support through an annual donation, pro bono advice, and a wide range of fundraising activities. We also provide graphic design support and one of our young lawyers sits on Youthline’s Board of Trustees. They are a fantastic partner doing extremely important work for the youth of New Zealand.
Stephen Bell, MNZM, CEO of Youthline recently said:
“Simpson Grierson has been a consistent and valued partner for 10 years. That consistency has helped Youthline grow into a vibrant, proudly New Zealand grown, youth development organisation. Without Simpson Grierson’s belief in Youthline and the ongoing consistent support we would not be all that we have become. We are proud to be their partner.”