This chapter focuses on the use of surveys as a tool to assist firms in the development or refinement of their pro bono practices. Surveys can take a variety of forms, including online surveys, individual or small group consultations or feedback forms.
Surveys are useful to obtain information about pro bono opportunities in which the firm is interested, or to obtain information about existing experience within the firm. Surveys can also build support for the practice within the firm by involving a broader range of people in decision-making about the focus of the firm’s pro bono practice.
With management support, and as a part of a broader development strategy, a survey can illustrate a firm’s commitment to improving, refining, or expanding its pro bono practice.
Surveys may also be used to gather information to evaluate the pro bono practice, or a particular project or matter. For more information about the use of surveys for evaluation purposes, see Chapter 1.13 Evaluation.
In applying survey results it should be remembered that the key driver for all pro bono practices should be improving access to justice and addressing unmet legal need.
1.5.1 DESIGNING AN EFFECTIVE SURVEY
In designing a survey, it is critical to consider:
- the purpose of the survey and the information that you want from it; and
- what type of survey is appropriate.
It is important to design a survey that takes into account factors such as the level of support for pro bono legal work that already exists in the firm, the stage of development of the pro bono practice and the size of the firm.
For smaller firms, individual or small group consultations may be more beneficial and realistic than in a larger firm that may need to use more formal survey tools. Also, where the level of support for pro bono in the firm is more varied, it may be more appropriate to initially conduct individual consultations with partners or with those who are particularly interested in being involved, rather than surveying the whole firm. Online surveys are helpful when seeking feedback across the whole firm and particularly for larger firms. If an online survey is utilised, factors to consider when preparing the survey include the following:
- Whether a standalone survey is appropriate or whether the pro bono survey can be usefully incorporated into a broader survey to staff (such as a staff engagement survey). Be aware of survey fatigue and whether the timing of the survey may affect the response rate;
- Keep the survey as short as possible and ideally no more than ten questions. A well-defined and targeted survey will improve the response rate. It is best to undertake some prior consultations with management, partners and other key internal and external stakeholders to assist with narrowing the scope of the survey; and
- Make it as easy as possible to answer the survey questions. For example, studies show that mandatory text fields (which require written responses) have a negative effect on response rates. However, if you do encourage written responses, ensure people understand they are optional and can be skipped.
A firm in the initial stages of developing a more structured practice may find it helpful to ask questions that address the following matters:
- areas of pro bono legal work already being done by the firm (this could address sources of referral and areas of law);
- areas of interest within the firm (if you have done prior consultations, you can ask staff to rank the areas already identified);
- what factors impact a person’s willingness to do pro bono legal work (for example, learning and development opportunities, adding variety to work or being related to a cause or area of personal interest);
- determining skills and experience relevant to pro bono legal work (for example, whether someone has previously worked at a Community Legal Centre or for Legal Aid); and
- existing links with community organisations and charities (for example, whether someone is on the board of a charity, Community Legal Centre or other community organisation).
A structured pro bono practice with established focus areas may be more interested in using surveys to gauge staff sentiment on a specific issue, such as setting the level of the pro bono target. For example, one pro bono manager explained that lunchtime forums were held, not to gauge interest, but to test specific concepts like focus areas and fee credit ceilings.
1.5.2 MANAGING SURVEY RISKS
There are some risks associated with surveys. For example, some experienced pro bono managers have found that surveying staff about their areas of interest in pro bono legal work can unrealistically raise their expectations about the kind of pro bono opportunities that will be available to them.
Some strategies to avoid this risk may include:
- providing staff with a range of options for pro bono focus areas that have already been assessed as being suitable for the firm’s pro bono practice;
- giving staff a clear strategic framework, which has been approved and supported by the firm’s leadership, so that they can provide feedback within those parameters;
- informing the staff being surveyed of the constraints of the pro bono practice so that they are realistic in their suggestions; and
- being clear about the kind of information that the survey is intended to gather and how it will be used.
Conversely, there is a risk that surveys will potentially limit pro bono opportunities. For example, while lawyers’ personal passions and interests can provide ideas for pro bono initiatives, it can often be the case that a pro bono project inspires that passion, rather than the other way around. There is a danger that survey results may inhibit the development of pro bono initiatives if they are focused solely on the firm’s existing passions and interests. Therefore, internal stakeholder engagement through surveys should focus on collecting insights on topics that are within the knowledge or expertise of those being surveyed. This is why it is important to have effective engagement with external stakeholders to understand key areas of unmet legal need and opportunities for pro bono initiatives (considered in chapter 1.6).
Another potential risk is that there will be a low response rate to a survey that will undermine its credibility or usefulness, or worse, it will be viewed negatively as an unwelcome additional demand on lawyers’ time.
To address this risk it should be made clear to those being surveyed that the process is being carried out with the full endorsement and support of the firm’s leadership and partnership. Participation in any pro bono-related work, like participation in a survey process and acceptance of its importance, is likely to be greater where the firm’s lawyers perceive that the firm’s leadership have made a genuine and serious commitment to pro bono.
For an online survey, it may be helpful for the firm’s managing partner or other senior figure to send out the survey to the firm to reinforce the importance of the process. There may be other creative ways to encourage staff to participate in a survey. One pro bono manager, who conducted a firm-wide survey at a mid-sized firm explained that all staff who completed an online survey went into the draw to win an iPad. Chapter 1.5.1 includes some other suggestions to improve the response rate to an online survey.
Communicating the reasons why the survey data is being collected and how it will be used, then reporting back and demonstrating that the information has been put to good use, will help to encourage participation in future surveys and assist in building the pro bono culture at the firm.
This chapter was reviewed in 2022 by the Australian Pro Bono Centre and the pro bono team at Lavan, headed by Garth Tinsley. 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.