This chapter provides the reflections of a principal of a mid-sized law firm who has successfully developed an effective pro bono practice.
Pro bono practices must, of necessity, reflect the culture and size of the particular firm. This chapter outlines considerations for mid-sized law firms. For example, a mid-sized law firm may not be able to commit the same resources to pro bono clinics, ongoing secondments with Community Legal Centres (‘CLC’), large scale law reform projects or resource-intensive pieces of litigation as a larger firm may be able to. However, a mid-sized firm may still be able to offer a similar suite of pro bono opportunities to its staff to that which is offered at a larger firm on a scale appropriate for the size of the firm. See also What Works, Chapter 6.3 Size of law firm or office.
Strategic choices need to be made about what type of pro bono legal work will be undertaken and how lawyers who want to participate can do so, keeping in mind that the standard of pro bono legal services must be the same as commercial legal services. For example, organising clinics or secondments and providing direct pro bono assistance to not-for-profit (‘NFP’) organisations or to individuals are all effective ways to deliver pro bono services for mid-sized firms.
For the purpose of this chapter, a mid-sized law firm is one with between 50 and 449 FTE lawyers.
1.15.1 MANAGING THE PRO BONO PRACTICE
It is important that a mid-sized firm puts in place formal policies and procedures to assist with the assessment and flow of pro bono opportunities, and also to guide the day to day running of pro bono files. The policies and procedures should include clear assessment criteria for pro bono referrals. Policies and procedures are important from a governance point of view, and help ensure that appropriate approval processes (including management of potential conflicts of interest), supervision and resourcing are put in place when accepting pro bono opportunities and performing pro bono work.
It can also be helpful for the firm to identify priority areas for the pro bono practice to guide decision making when considering pro bono opportunities. This may also allow the firm to build up particular expertise and a reputation (internally and externally) for its work in a particular area.
A mid-sized firm that is a signatory to the National Pro Bono Target of 35 hours per lawyer per year and/or is on a particular federal or state government legal panel will have significant pro bono obligations. For example, a mid-sized firm of 250 FTE lawyers will be required to perform at least 8,750 hours of pro bono work per year to meet the National Pro Bono Target. Accordingly, this amount of work should be appropriately recognised within the firm’s financial and reporting structures.
Depending upon the particular size of the firm, decisions need to be made in relation to the amount of resources dedicated to pro bono legal work. For instance, a firm with fewer than 250FTE lawyers may be able to employee a single Pro Bono Manager to operate the practice across the firm and ensure the appropriate distribution of pro bono opportunities to its lawyers. However, a firm larger than this (up to 449 FTE lawyers) may need to employ a pro bono team to assist with the distribution of pro bono work and also the undertaking of pro bono work.
Where a firm employees a pro bono team, consideration needs to be given as to how much of firm’s pro bono work is performed by that team. Employing a larger pro bono team can be a simpler way of ensuring that the firm performs a certain level of pro bono work and meets any pro bono obligations it has (e.g. National Pro Bono Target). However, having a smaller dedicated pro bono team on the basis that there is an expectation across the firm that lawyers perform pro bono work helps to build a strong pro bono culture and pride in the firm’s pro bono practice. If a mid-sized firm’s pro bono practice is structured in this way, it is important to have a management culture and structures in place that encourage and appropriately recognise pro bono work as part of an individual’s legal practice.
For the pro bono manager of a mid-sized law firm, there is a continual challenge to provide suitable opportunities for pro bono legal work across the different practice groups of the firm. In this regard, it is important that mid-sized firms take out memberships with organisations that provide pro bono referrals and pro bono clinic opportunities (e.g. Justice Connect and LawRight) and create strong relationships with CLCs. It is generally a combination of referral opportunities (where the firm takes on responsibility for a particular matter) and clinic programs (where the firm provides lawyers as volunteers for a CLC) that provides the best spread of opportunities to ensure that all lawyers at the firms have the chance to contribute to the pro bono practice. The pro bono work and the relationships that are built may also lead to other pro bono opportunities, including legal research for CLCs, law reform and policy work, and mentoring or shadowing of CLCs where the expertise of a private law firm is beneficial.
Many mid-sized firms will already have expertise in areas of law corresponding with unmet legal need, on which they can draw. For example, firms with expertise in areas such as employment law or wills and estates will be an excellent fit for a partnership with a CLC. Further, mid-sized firms with expertise in areas such as corporate governance will find a natural fit with NFPs and charities.
Often mid-sized firms also have specific areas of expertise that can be drawn on to provide pro bono legal services, just as they are for commercial work.
A particular strength of a mid-sized law firm is that, depending upon the size of a particular office, most of the lawyers, and support staff, know each other relatively well. A pro bono manager at a mid-sized law firm is often in a position to have personal relationships with most staff which may make referrals, enquiries and decisions much quicker, and enables a more flexible approach to dealing with large matters across practice areas.
There are internal challenges for a mid-sized pro bono practice (whether new or established) which will vary depending on the culture of the firm, the support of senior leadership and the resources available. It is important to ensure there is a firm culture that embraces pro bono and there are strategies in place to support its continuation. See Chapter 1.4 Promoting a pro bono culture.
In firms which are in the process of developing their pro bono practice, often there will only be one pro bono manager, rather than a pro bono team. Accordingly, pro bono managers, particularly those in mid-sized firms, should take advantage of the collegiate nature of the Australian pro bono community to find a support network.
If all lawyers are engaged in pro bono legal work, it makes it much easier to manage and allocate work which is of benefit to both the firm and its pro bono clients. See Chapter 1.10 Participation.
In this regard, it is important that all legal and support staff know:
- that there is an expectation that all lawyers and/or staff participate in the pro bono practice;
- about the pro bono legal work undertaken by the firm (through newsletters, intranet, social media, firm wide emails, and pro bono events);
- how the pro bono practice operates (firm intranet and induction sessions);
- how to get involved (firm intranet and induction sessions);
- how to balance pro bono legal work with commercial work; and
- how to gain the support of their respective partner for their pro bono legal work.
There also need to be systems in place to ensure that pro bono legal work is appropriately credited and recognised. See Chapter 1.11 Crediting and recognising pro bono legal work.
1.15.4 PRO BONO ENGAGEMENT & MANAGING EXPECTATIONS
LAWYERS WITHIN THE FIRM
As noted, it is generally a combination of referral opportunities and clinic programs that provides the best spread of pro bono opportunities for the lawyers at a mid-sized firm.
Some practice areas within the firm maybe in greater demand for pro bono referrals (e.g. employment law, litigation, corporate) than others (e.g. commercial property).
Clinics and also secondments can provide opportunities to do pro bono legal work in situations where there are lawyers keen to do pro bono legal work but there are few opportunities within their particular practice area for them to do so at the firm. See What Works, Chapter 2.1 I am in the early stages of developing a pro bono practice (or growing an existing practice), Chapter 20 Clinics and Chapter 22 Secondments. Through clinics and secondments, lawyers will often enjoy the opportunity to work at or with a CLC or small NFP organisation. Such organisations may not have the same resourcing as a private law firm (e.g. IT systems), however, working with these organisations can provide a great opportunity for learning, particularly in working with pro bono clients as a grassroots level. Clinics and secondments also offer the chance to experience a less corporate work culture, and many lawyers find this rewarding in itself. Lawyers need to be flexible and willing to deal with different work environments as well as clients and areas of the law. They should also be prepared to undergo further training or be supervised by someone other than the partner who supervises their commercial work, particularly if they will be working with vulnerable groups of clients. See Chapter 1.14 Training and skills.
At a mid-sized level, from time to time, there may not be spare capacity in the firm and the firm may not have expertise in some areas of law where there is demand for pro bono assistance. It is important for a mid-sized law firm to manage pro bono clients’ expectations, spelling out what the firm can, and cannot, do for the client from the start, and being clear about the ambit of work that the firm has agreed to do. It is understandable that pro bono clients will want to make full use of having ‘free’ lawyers at their disposal. Lawyers working on matters can set an expectation that any new requests for pro bono assistance will need to be assessed on an individual basis through the firm’s usual pro bono processes. In relation to work with NFPs, there can be the need to clearly set out what assistance can be provided as a lawyer and what may be considered commercial advice, which will require organisational decision making by the NFP.
See 2.1.5 Letters of engagement.
This chapter was reviewed in 2022 by the Centre and the pro bono team at Holding Redlich, headed by Guy Donovan. The Australian Pro Bono Centre acknowledges and is grateful for the generous contributions of those who assisted with the 2022 refresh of the Australian Pro Bono Manual.