Pro bono practices must, of necessity, reflect the culture and size of the particular firm. This chapter outlines some particular considerations for mid-sized law firms.1 For example, a mid-sized law firm may not be able to commit the same resources to a weekly clinic or an ongoing secondment with a CLC or a large piece of litigation that may run for a number of years as a larger firm, although mid-sized firms have participated in weekly clinics. Internally, there may also not be as many resources available to support the firm’s pro bono efforts. See also Chapter 1.17 Reflections of a pro bono coordinator and What Works, Chapter 6.3 Size of law firm or office.
Strategic choices will therefore 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 for commercial legal services regardless of the availability of resources. For example, clinics, secondments (including sessional secondments) and providing pro bono assistance to NFP organisations have proven to be effective models for mid-sized firms.
Like large firms, 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 probate would be an excellent fit for a partnership with a CLC or referral organisation. Other commercial mid-sized firms with expertise in areas such as corporate governance or property will find a natural fit with NFPs and charities.
Often mid-sized firm 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 most of the lawyers, and support staff, know each other relatively well. A pro bono coordinator 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 view of the partnership as to ‘how to do pro bono’, the resources available, and the view of the staff at the firm. 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 program often there will only be one pro bono coordinator, rather than a pro bono team. This role can be quite isolating, particularly if the firm does not yet have a strong pro bono culture. Pro bono coordinators, 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 coordinate and allocate work which is of benefit to both the firm and its pro bono clients. See Chapter 1.10 Participation.
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 program;
- 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.
1.15.3 MANAGING EXPECTATIONS
LAWYERS WITHIN THE FIRM
At a mid-sized level there may not be spare capacity in the firm and the firm may not have expertise in a number of areas of law where there is demand for pro bono assistance.
Clinics and 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 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. However, lawyers need to understand that, when going to a CLC or a small NFP office, the same resources may not be available as at a private firm, although circumstances and resources vary across locations. For example, the IT system may be simpler, and there may be fewer offices, fewer desks and less administrative support. 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. See Chapter 1.14 Training and skills.
Lawyers should also understand that pro bono legal work, both for individuals and small NFPs, can involve providing practical assistance, for example assisting clients navigate the legal system.
Clinics and secondments also offer the chance to experience a less corporate work culture, and many lawyers find this rewarding in itself.
It is especially important for a mid-sized law firm with limited resources 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.
In relation to clients which are NFPs genuinely requiring legal assistance, and do not have the capacity to pay, it is advisable to make it clear, for example, that:
- the firm will only provide legal, and not commercial, advice; and
- the firm will only advise on the particular legal issues agreed upon and will not provide advice on any other issues that arise for the organisation unless these are subsequently agreed upon.
See 2.1.5 Letters of engagement.
For the pro bono coordinator of a mid-sized law firm, there is a continual challenge to create suitable opportunities for pro bono legal work for the firm (often with very few resources) whether that be by supporting a particular clinic, entering into a relationship with a CLC or PBRO, or acting for a pro bono client who will have ongoing work and can link to other pro bono legal work. There is a need to be innovative and flexible whilst being aware of the realities of commercial practice.
1 For the purpose of this book, a mid-sized law firm is one with between 50 and 449 FTE lawyers.