This chapter provides the reflections of a pro bono coordinator at a mid-sized law firm who has successfully developed an effective pro bono practice.
Conducting a pro bono practice can be extremely rewarding for firms, but it is important to appreciate that its success requires more than simply the allocation of a certain number of hours to pro bono legal work. In short, a pro bono practice requires a significant cultural commitment by the firm.
The positive impact of the pro bono practice to our firm culture is incredible. We have growing interstate offices and it allows for cross-office collaboration, the common ownership of success and also identification of common purposes across the whole firm. It is a way to demonstrate the culture of the firm. But the leadership needs to drive this.
Pro bono matters cannot be conducted ‘on the cheap’. Pro bono clients are owed the same professional responsibilities as all other clients, and if a law firm is to take its pro bono responsibility seriously, then it must ensure that pro bono matters are given an appropriate level of resources. Pro bono legal work is not an excuse for cutting corners or simply a training ground for junior lawyers.
There is sometimes a tension between the time put towards pro bono legal work and even coordination, and the sense of an opportunity cost to the firm. It can be hard to balance competing responsibilities, but firms need to understand that is it important and allow for proper resourcing. The firm leadership, where more sophisticated programs have developed, understand the positive contribution pro bono makes to the success of the firm and allow the pro bono practice to be integrated and developed in alignment with overall firm strategies.
To be able to grow a successful pro bono practice the leadership of the firm has to be engaged. It is so important that the contribution of the pro bono practice to the firm is understood. Sometimes in a small or mid-sized law firm the budgetary pressures make it hard to grow the practice as a result and this can impact on enabling opportunities and growing participation. You have to be resilient, nimble and creative as a coordinator.
A law firm should recognise that conducting a pro bono practice may require skills and training additional to those needed when acting for commercial clients. It will be unfair to both your lawyers and your pro bono clients to simply assume that lawyers who ordinarily conduct commercial practices for corporate clients will automatically pick up the necessary community legal skills as they go along.
Being at the beginning I observe other more established programs with great interest. I am often influenced by their big ideas and larger scale projects or cases and try to develop initiatives on a smaller scale, without the same budget or teams of people. I have come to realise that it doesn’t matter that I cannot do ‘signature’ projects of the scale of other firms. Developing our firm style of pro bono and a practice that has integrity is important and leads to success.
It is worth talking to people. Referral organisations like Justice Connect, the CLCs, policy makers, practitioners and NFP organisations. So much of our successful work comes from just getting to know people, an organisation, making an approach. People want to work collaboratively to achieve common goals. If you know what your firm wants, what your people are passionate about and take the time to listen you can often create successful projects or engage in work that has a greater impact.
- 1.17.1 Being a pro bono leader/coordinator in a firm
- 1.17.2 What type of pro bono legal work?
- 1.17.3 Individual clients: issues to consider
1.17.1 BEING A PRO BONO LEADER/COORDINATOR IN A FIRM
Leading the pro bono practice in the firm can come with its own challenges. Often coordination is performed alongside commercial work or as an ‘extra’ and at the other end of the spectrum a pro bono partner or full time role is often created. The role requires dedication and a complex understanding of the workings of a legal business, as well as unmet legal need and access to justice, the NFP sector, the community legal sector and the profession. There is a balancing of co-ordinating, creating, defending, inspiring, engaging and just getting legal work done. A coordinator needs to have a sense of the outcome he or she is trying to achieve and then work with resilience towards goals.
To succeed in the role a pro bono leader needs support internally and externally. Getting supporters with influence within the firm is critical. Without someone to support you and the work it is difficult to achieve what is asked. Someone with influence, authority and experience within the firm is required. Externally many other pro bono leaders are terrific at providing guidance, perspective and support. There is a great network of people who are happy to respond to questions and sit down and reflect with you, many with important experiences to share.
For support in achieving the growth of the program you need partnership and management support. This requires communication around the importance of the practice, how it aligns with the firm’s business and the positive impact it will have. Again, identifying some firm champions who can influence and communicate consistent messages alongside and independently of you is important. Opportunities to report to the top decision maker or management, whether a senior partner or a CEO, are invaluable. In more established programs, being able to maintain links and communication channels to your partners and be able to take part at the highest level of the firm is extremely helpful for the success of the practice.
For more information see Chapter 1.9 Coordinating the program.
1.17.2 WHAT TYPE OF PRO BONO LEGAL WORK?
A firm will have core practice areas and these are often the place to start a pro bono practice. The firm should decide in advance the type of pro bono legal work that it is prepared to conduct. It may be that acting for charities or NFPs will involve the type of work and legal issues much closer to a firm’s regular commercial practice, and a pro bono practice directed entirely at charities or community organisations may involve less obvious changes to the way in which you conduct your practice.
If the firm chooses to conduct matters for individual clients, then serious consideration must be given to the areas of law in which assistance will be offered. Matters should not be conducted unless the partnership of the firm has the capacity and expertise to supervise them. It is inappropriate to use pro bono clients as an opportunity to train lawyers in new areas of law.
For more information see Chapter 1.2 Defining pro bono legal work.
1.17.3 INDIVIDUAL CLIENTS: ISSUES TO CONSIDER
Acting for individual clients can often bring a number of challenges. If your firm does not ordinarily act for individuals, and is more comfortable with corporations, then it will be necessary for you to prepare your lawyers honestly for the challenges that lie ahead.
A commitment to pro bono legal work must come with a commitment to deal sensitively with the requirements of pro bono clients. Many pro bono clients are unfamiliar with legal processes. Some may feel uncomfortable speaking with lawyers. It is important to ensure that your lawyers are confident and capable of creating a professional relationship with clients which allows them to obtain appropriate instructions, and to give clear advice in a way which the client can understand.
Lawyers should also be prepared for the fact that individual pro bono clients may require more time than commercial clients. Some may ring frequently and may prefer to receive advice face to face, as well as in writing.
Issues to consider include:
- Individuals can sometimes be emotional and, occasionally, demanding. Some may be so distressed by what is confronting them that they may cry. Your lawyers need to be aware of these possibilities and be prepared to respond appropriately.
- Many clients will never have needed a lawyer before, and may not understand much about the legal system. They will need to have carefully explained to them their rights under the firm’s terms of engagement, and the firm’s responsibility to act only on the client’s instructions. You must not simply assume if someone does not ask a question, that they understand or agree with what you are suggesting.
- Lawyers should be properly trained to be patient, and modify their ‘legalese’, in order to communicate with appropriate language. It is essential to ensure that your lawyers are able to do so in a manner that is not seen as patronising.
- If your pro bono practice is going to involve new areas of law, then you should consider what training will be necessary. A CLC or other community legal organisation may be able to provide your staff with training in areas of law with which those community organisations are more familiar.
- If your clients will require interpreters, it is important that your staff be familiar with how to use an interpreter. The firm should also develop a policy as to who will pay for those interpreter costs.
- Some clients may find it difficult to travel to your office, and the firm needs to consider whether it will arrange for its lawyers to visit clients at a more suitable venue.
- The firm needs to be prepared to have pro bono clients sitting in reception. They should be made to feel as comfortable and as welcome as all other clients of the firm.
Some pro bono clients will have unrealistic expectations about the prospects of their matter. A significant part of a lawyer’s task is to advise the client of the reality of their prospects. An important part of our pro bono role is often to do no more than to advise a client that they should not continue with a matter, that they should settle or withdraw. Many clients need to hear that advice, and often for a new lawyer, the idea of providing disappointing advice to clients can seem difficult. It is therefore important that firms also provide some training for lawyers as to the appropriate manner in which to provide advice that a client does not necessarily wish to hear. For more information see Chapter 1.14 Training and skills.