The Centre’s best practice guide, What is best practice in pro bono?, and our publication What Works describe the most successful pro bono practices as involving lawyers at every level. Pro bono practices thrive when lawyers across the firm and at all levels of seniority understand pro bono work for clients who are otherwise unable to access the law as a shared professional responsibility. Increased overall pro bono participation requires the firm to have policies and systems which make pro bono work part of every lawyer’s experience, from partners through to seasonal clerks. The process for increasing and maintaining consistent participation is explained in detail in the Centre’s other materials. This chapter provides a brief overview of the key elements of the process, and includes appropriate cross-references to the best practice guide and What Works.
The structure of this chapter proceeds as follows:
- 1.10.1 Overview
- 1.10.2 Partners
- 1.10.3 Lawyers and senior associates
- 1.10.4 New employees
- 1.10.5 Graduates
- 1.10.6 Seasonal clerks
A strong pro bono culture within the firm is critical for creating an environment where all lawyers are engaged in the firm’s pro bono practice.
High levels of participation do not happen spontaneously. Participation requires that there are appropriate cultural and practical support structures in place for everybody to be able to do pro bono work. The firm should identify the values which underpin its pro bono practice, and reinforce its support for pro bono work.
There should be at least one pro bono leader of seniority whose sole or main job is to manage the pro bono practice. Pro bono leaders should be regarded as leaders of a practice area and treated as equal to other practice area leaders.
The pro bono leader should proactively manage and oversee all elements of the practice in keeping with their role as the practice head. They will be supported by a team of pro bono lawyers and/or a pro bono committee (comprising at least one partner in each office).
There needs to be a system in place to identify and allocate enough pro bono opportunities to ensure that pro bono work really can be part of everyone’s legal practice. The firm should have a system for crediting and recognising pro bono legal work; encouraging lawyers to participate, and ensuring it is straightforward for them to do so; and ensuring that staff are properly supported in their pro bono legal work. None of this will happen by chance. It requires leadership and policies.
See further What Works, Chapter 4 Importance of developing a strong pro bono culture.
See also What is best practice in pro bono?, Element 1 A strong social justice and pro bono culture supported by management.
Partners are often underrepresented in pro bono legal work. In 2020, 49% of partners in larger firms participated in their firms’ pro bono practices, compared to an overall participation rate at those same firms of 62%.
Genuine and visible partner involvement in pro bono legal work is key to firm-wide participation. The firm’s leaders should lead by example, both by undertaking pro bono legal work of their own and by actively encouraging other lawyers to participate in the firm’s pro bono practice. Partners need to communicate by their words and actions that pro bono legal work is an integral part of the firm’s culture and corporate responsibility.
Pro bono work should always be performed and supervised to the same standard as commercial work. Supervision means partner supervision, as on all other firm files. Performance to the same standard includes fully crediting pro bono work as billable work that contributes to individual and firm-wide hourly and financial targets. Pro bono work should also be given the same priority as commercial work. Ultimately, the firm should strive for its staff to view and treat pro bono work as equally valuable to commercial work.
See further What Works, Chapter 4 Importance of developing a strong pro bono culture – in particular, the sub-section headed “The importance of leadership support”.
1.10.3 LAWYERS AND SENIOR ASSOCIATES
The firm should encourage lawyers and senior associates to participate meaningfully in pro bono work. Staff across the firm should be aware of the firm’s pro bono practice and policy, and it should be straightforward for all lawyers to participate in the practice. Firms should also offer dedicated pro bono leadership opportunities to lawyers, which might include opportunities to manage a pro bono clinic, manage a submission or pro bono project, or take responsibility for the firm’s relationship with a particular community organisation.
See, for example, What Works, Chapter 20 Clinics – in particular, the sub-section headed “Features of effective clinics”. See also What Works, Chapter 22 Secondments, and the complementary section in What is best practice in pro bono?, Element 13 Secondments.
Pro bono work should also play a role in a lawyer’s performance assessment, advancement and bonuses. This is part of the process of making pro bono work indistinguishable from commercial work across the firm. It also demonstrates the firm’s commitment to pro bono work as an integral part of every lawyer’s individual practice.
1.10.4 NEW EMPLOYEES
Inducting new partners and employees with information about the importance of pro bono work to the firm and the opportunities available should be standard practice. This enhances the potential for new employees to become involved in pro bono work from the beginning of their employment with the firm.
New and existing employees should understand why and how the firm conducts pro bono work, including how to engage with and participate in the firm’s pro bono practice. It should be made clear to junior lawyers that they will be appropriately supported and supervised in their pro bono work and advised of any training opportunities.
The National Pro Bono Target for lawyers is 35 hours of pro bono work per lawyer per year. New partners and lawyers should be encouraged to think of their pro bono commitment as an internal and external expectation, while recognising that pro bono work is not compulsory.
See further What is best practice in pro bono?, Element 3 Broad awareness of the pro bono program and Element 4 Broad engagement of staff.
Firms should start their graduates’ careers with participation in pro bono work, and explain to them from the beginning why it is important to the firm, the community, and their practice as lawyers. Graduates should begin their employment with a clear understanding of the firm’s expectations for their participation in pro bono work, the positive culture that surrounds the firm’s pro bono practice, the pro bono opportunities that may arise and key contacts. Pro bono work can be used to develop both professional and personal skills. Encouragement to become involved, followed by direct approaches and follow-up by colleagues already engaged, can help establish participation in the pro bono practice at the beginning of a graduate’s career.
1.10.6 SEASONAL CLERKS
Students wanting to begin their career at a law firm are interested in pro bono work. Firms will attract (and retain) students by providing meaningful opportunities for pro bono work during clerkship programs, and by demonstrating that such opportunities will continue when students progress to graduate employment.
This chapter was reviewed in 2022 by the Australian Pro Bono Centre and the pro bono team at Clayton Utz, headed by David Hillard and Jessica Morath. The Centre acknowledges and is grateful for the generous contributions of all those who assisted with the 2022 refresh of the Australian Pro Bono Manual.
 Australian Pro Bono Centre, Report on the 7th National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey: Australian firms with 50 or more lawyers (Report, February 2021) 34 <https://www.probonocentre.org.au/information-on-pro-bono/survey/>.