Pro bono legal work can take many forms. Often it involves providing some form of legal advice or legal representation, either to individual clients or to not-for-profit organisations and charities. Lawyers can also provide pro bono assistance in the form of law reform and policy work or community legal education or through a variety or combination of the following:
- case referral;
- outreach services;
- secondments to community legal organisations;
- virtual delivery of legal services: telephone, video conferencing, online and mobile technology;
- collaborative service delivery programs; and
- international pro bono.
While this chapter provides an overview of the most common forms of pro bono legal work and models of assistance, there may be others, including combinations of those discussed here.
Partnering with organisations with relevant expertise underpins the success of many of these models. Before establishing any formal partnership, it is important that firms take the time to develop an understanding of the partner organisation’s particular expertise.
For detailed information and case studies illustrating these models see What Works, Part 4 Models of pro bono legal assistance.
- 1.7.1 Legal advice and representation
- 1.7.2 Law reform and policy work
- 1.7.3 Community legal education
- 1.7.4 Clinics
- 1.7.5 Secondments to community legal organisations
- 1.7.6 Co-counselling
- 1.7.7 ‘Secondary consults’ or ‘phone a friend’ assistance
- 1.7.8 Partnerships with tertiary institutions
- 1.7.9 Virtual delivery of legal services
- 1.7.10 Collaborative service delivery programs
- 1.7.11 International pro bono
1.7.1 LEGAL ADVICE AND REPRESENTATION
The archetypal form of pro bono legal assistance takes the form of providing legal advice or representation to clients on a pro bono basis, leveraging the core skills and experience of practising lawyers. The only difference between a pro bono engagement and a commercial engagement is that, in the case of a pro bono engagement, the client will not have to pay any, or will pay a significantly reduced, fee.
Some firms prioritise acting for individuals, rather than organisations, as a means of enhancing access to justice. Some firms prioritise acting for not-for-profit organisations (NFPs) or community organisations to scale up impact and facilitate systemic reform. This allows those organisations to direct their resources towards achieving their core objectives, rather than towards paying for legal services. Pro bono providers may also provide training to NFPs on legal issues affecting them.
Lawyers and firms can provide pro bono legal advice and representation in response to direct requests for assistance (from individuals and/or NFPs organisations, charities or social enterprises), or receive case referrals from various sources including through or from:
- pro bono referral organisations (Referral Organisations);
- community legal centres (CLCs);
- Legal Aid;
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS); and
- other sources (this could include internal projects).
1.7.2 LAW REFORM AND POLICY WORK
This model of pro bono legal work aims to address unmet legal need by advocating for change to an aspect of the law or its administration that is a source of injustice, or for the introduction of a new law or policy.
Pro bono lawyers can use their skills and expertise to assist organisations undertaking public advocacy by:
- engaging in targeted casework and/or strategic litigation to highlight an unjust aspect of the law;
- contributing to law reform submissions and proposals with partners (eg Community Legal Centres (CLCs) or in their own capacity if the law firm has the relevant expertise);
- commenting on other proposals (including government proposals);
- letter writing; and
- participating in inquiries and campaigns.
See further What Works, Chapter 27 Law reform and policy work.
1.7.3 COMMUNITY LEGAL EDUCATION
Pro bono providers and pro bono referral schemes and organisations (referral organisations) may either deliver in their own capacity if they have the relevant expertise, or partner with community organisations to deliver community legal education, which can take a number of forms. For example:
- ‘plain English’ written materials (often in a number of different languages);
- website based legal information;
- general legal information seminars or webinars; and
- specific and targeted training to other organisations or individuals.
Community legal education is a great way for law firms to both contribute to community organisations and educate on important societal issues within their broader sphere of influence.
See What Works, Chapter 29 Community legal education.
The clinic model involves pro bono lawyers directly helping community legal organisations (such as CLCs or referral organisations) to provide free legal assistance to their clients in an area of unmet legal need. Typically the pro bono lawyers help to triage clients, conduct research, interview and advise clients or draft legal documents. Law firms and in-house pro bono contributions to clinics can take many forms and may involve:
- co-locating with the community legal organisation at a place that provides access to the target client group, whether at the community legal organisation’s premises, the firm’s premises, or the premises of another client support service;
- training the organisation’s staff with knowledge and skills to provide legal advice/representation in areas of unmet legal need;
- undertaking training to develop expertise in assisting clients experiencing disadvantage or in areas of unmet legal need;
- providing premises in a place that is geographically and physically accessible, safe and trusted by clients;
- promoting or publicising the service to the relevant client group; and/or
- committing to the partnership for a significant period of time to ensure the viability of the service.
Clinics include ‘specialist’ clinics and ‘outreach’ clinics. Specialist clinics focus on a particular area of legal need or on particular categories of clients experiencing disadvantage (e.g. people experiencing homelessness or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples). Outreach clinics provide pro bono legal services at an outreach location, which may be in a regional, rural or remote (RRR) area.
In response to COVID-19 lockdowns and extended periods of isolation between 2020 and 2022, the face-to-face pro bono clinic model was significantly disrupted. This resulted in both benefits and disadvantages in the delivery of pro bono legal services. For example, one significant disadvantage was the increased digital divide where those without access to appropriate technology were not able to access pro bono clinic support. Conversely, an advantage reported by many law firms was their ability to scale-up their support for particular online clinics by using lawyers from other jurisdictions.
Pro bono lawyers can also support clinics as secondees; in other words, there can be overlap between the clinic and the secondment models. See further 1.7.5 Secondments to community legal organisations.
For more information on the clinic model, see What Works, Chapter 20 Clinics.
1.7.5 SECONDMENTS TO COMMUNITY LEGAL ORGANISATIONS
Some law firms provide one or more pro bono lawyers as secondees to community legal organisations or other NFPs. This boosts the capacity of a community legal organisation to undertake legal work, thereby helping to address unmet legal need. Secondments may be:
- full-time or part-time, for a fixed period (for example, for three, six, or 12 months). A fixed period secondment may be part of a single firm or multi-firm rotation that ensures that a secondee is always available to the community legal organisation;
- sessional (for example, a lawyer attends a community legal organisation to operate an advice clinic one afternoon each week);
- short-term locums to cover a staff shortage;
- specific secondments (for example, for the period of a particular project or initiative of a community legal organisation); and/or
- in person, online or a combination
As touched on above, the secondment model overlaps with the clinic model because lawyers who are considered to be on a ‘sessional secondment’ are often used to staff clinics.
Secondments to community legal organisations are a well-used and effective way for firms to involve themselves in pro bono activities in the community. 68.4% of respondents to the Centre’s 2020 National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey indicated that they were providing secondments, compared to 51% in 2018, 46% in 2016 and 44% in 2014.
Secondments also offer valuable benefits to the law firm providing the secondee. They contribute to the professional development of staff, and also raise awareness of social issues in the firm. Seconded lawyers may be exposed to hands-on legal work advising or representing clients which is quite different to their usual work. As a result the secondees bring enhanced legal, communication and managerial skills back to the firm, as well as an improved understanding of the needs of the community legal organisation. Firms benefit from improved employee morale, as secondees often have a heightened sense of professional satisfaction. Secondees also help to build relationships between the community legal organisation and the firm, thereby increasing the visibility of the firm’s pro bono programs and engendering an improved sense of community and a continuing commitment to pro bono legal work within the firm.
In this model, firms and community legal organisations work together to undertake public interest litigation either for an individual client or as a law reform initiative. Typically, the community legal organisation does the initial work establishing the merits of the case or issue and maintains the client relationship. The firm may then give written advice, do background research and draft court documents as required. The firm or the community legal organisation (or both) may be on the record. The key benefit of a co-counselling arrangement is that the law firm increases the capacity of the community legal organisation to undertake public interest litigation or law reform. However, sometimes it is challenging having two sets of lawyers involved in the work and decision making process, particularly if they have conflicting views.
See further What Works, Chapter 24 Co-counselling.
1.7.7 ‘SECONDARY CONSULTS’ OR ‘PHONE A FRIEND’ ASSISTANCE
‘Secondary consults’ or ‘phone a friend’ assistance involves the mentoring of lawyers at community legal organisations by pro bono providers. This can occur through formalised arrangements like the provision of community legal education or less formal arrangements where advice or an opinion is sought and provided in a particular area of law or in relation to a particular matter. Benefits of this type of assistance include the informal, accessible and the de-identified nature of the inquiries and that there is no issue of conflict for the firm. However, timing may become an issue if a lawyer at the firm with the required expertise is not immediately available.
See further What Works, Chapter 25 ‘Secondary consults’ or ‘phone a friend’ assistance.
1.7.8 PARTNERSHIPS WITH TERTIARY INSTITUTIONS
A growing area of pro bono legal services involves collaborations between private firms and tertiary institutions. The concept was initiated in 2015 by the establishment of the DC Affordable Law Firm in Washington DC, a partnership between DLA Piper, Arent Fox and Georgetown University Law Centre.
Examples of such collaborations in Australia include the following:
- The Accessible Justice Project is a collaboration between the University of Adelaide and Adelaide law firm, LK Law, to improve access to justice for Australians who would otherwise be without legal assistance. LK Law created a not-for-profit law, charitable firm that offers affordable (‘low bono’) legal services to members of the community who do not qualify for legal aid but cannot afford a private lawyer. That cohort is commonly referred to as the ‘missing middle’. The firm is staffed by qualified lawyers who are completing their Master of Laws at the University of Adelaide. They are supervised by senior lawyers from LK Law on a pro bono basis.
- Everyday Justice is a not-for-profit law firm owned by Mills Oakley that provides free legal advice to people and organisations who cannot access means-tested Legal Aid services or afford a private lawyer without incurring substantial financial hardship. The firm has partnered with the College of Law to set up a national internship program for law graduates interested in pursuing careers where they can make a valuable impact to people from vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.
- Wallumatta Legal is the result of a collaboration between global law firm DLA Piper and Macquarie University. The Sydney-based low fee, not-for-profit law firm, provides family law services to the ‘missing middle’ – people who are ineligible for Legal Aid or pro bono services, but who cannot easily afford private lawyers. The firm is supported by skilled volunteers, including staff and students from Macquarie University Law School, who are supervised by DLA Piper lawyers.
1.7.9 VIRTUAL DELIVERY OF LEGAL SERVICES
There are growing opportunities to use the following types of technology, either alone or in combination, to deliver pro bono legal services virtually. These technologies complement or deliver other pro bono models described in this chapter:
- video conferencing;
- email; and/or
- electronic signature platforms.
Traditionally, the use of telephone and online video conferencing facilities, in particular, often has been viewed as a way to address unmet legal need that is exacerbated by the lack of physically available or accessible services (for example, where a service is geographically inaccessible to people in RRR areas, or where a client has limited mobility). In addition, there may also be client groups, such as children and young people, who do not live in a RRR area but prefer the immediacy and anonymity of the online medium.
More recently, the improvement and increased availability of technology facilities necessitated by the 2020 and 2022 COVID-19 lockdowns has extended the use of technology-based services for wider, more general forms of pro bono legal support. Video conferencing and e-signing technology has become a standard accepted across courts and various pro bono models. Some advantages of utilising technology-based services for the delivery of pro bono legal services include that:
- services can be delivered by lawyers regardless of physical location;
- access to justice can be improved for clients who may struggle to attend in-person legal appointments for a number of reasons including geographical location, difficulty taking time off work and difficulty travelling due to language, physical or financial barriers. Video-conferencing technology reduces these barriers and allows more expedient delivery of services;
- Clients from vulnerable, culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds often have more mistrust in legal authorities and find attending in-person appointments at a lawyer’s office intimidating or confronting. Some communities also have a strong social stigma against seeking help from legal authorities, which may make approaching a legal office intimidating. Providing options for telephone or video conference appointments may allow clients to feel more at ease speaking to a lawyer from within a space they are more comfortable and can be afforded privacy within; and
- Community legal education delivered via videoconference seminars, or published in the form of online written or audio-visual materials can reach a wider audience of pro bono recipients within a shorter period of time. For example, many community legal centres developed fact sheets available online to address common legal issues such as tenancy and employment issues faced during COVID-19. The early and easy access of such online materials allows the prevention rather than cure of larger legal issues from forming down the line.
However, pro bono providers need to be cognisant and adapt to the limitations of technology-based services including:
- Some pro bono clients may have limited access to requisite facilities such as computers or the internet, or struggle with digital or computer literacy. For example, the delivery of telephone or videoconference advice can be interrupted when a client runs out of phone credit or if the internet line is unstable. Another simple example is where a client with poor digital literacy may struggle to find emails sent by the lawyer which may have gone into a spam inbox. Lawyers should be patient and flexible in adjusting to these limitations if encountered.
- The virtual delivery of legal services may be inappropriate for some clients, for example with clients facing family and domestic violence, who may have limited access to the requisite facilities or platforms, or cannot take calls when around the perpetrator of violence.
- For the virtual delivery of legal services to work effectively, pro bono service providers and client support workers (such as CLC staff or case workers) also need to be familiar with and/or comfortable using the associated technologies (for example, computers and video-conferencing systems). Chapter 1.14.6 provides more information on good practices for delivering legal services virtually.
- Some elements of communication such as non-verbal and body language cues can often be lost over video conferencing or telephone appointments. This may impact the building of trust and rapport between lawyer and client, as well as the effective communication of information.
- The breakdown of boundaries between work and personal life for pro bono lawyers working from home can exacerbate the experiencing of vicarious trauma from difficult legal matters. The delivery of legal services virtually from a remote working environment may also reduce access to support for a pro bono lawyer from the wider team or supervising lawyer.
Pro bono providers should carefully weigh the various considerations of the extent and appropriateness to which technology-based services should be used to deliver a pro bono program.
For example, in 2022, pro bono lawyers assisting Afghanistan evacuees through referrals from the Immigration Advice and Rights Centre (IARC) advised and filled out visa applications for the evacuees using teleconferencing technology and telephone interpreters. This model benefited evacuees who would have had to travel long distances to attend in-person appointments in the city, were unfamiliar with the public transport system due to being newly settled or not understanding English, or had young children or elderly to care for and would have difficulties finding time to attend appointments. Electronic signature platforms such as DocuSign were used to allow evacuees to sign documents using their fingers on their mobile phones, given many of them did not have access to printers or scanners. As the visa applications were often subject to tight timeframes and short notice periods, the use of technology allowed deadlines to be expediently met with minimal disruption and difficulty to the evacuees, their case workers and lawyers.
However, in cases where it was assessed to be inappropriate to assist the client through telephone services, IARC maintained the availability for clients to attend in-person appointments. For example, a client who was illiterate, indicated difficulty understanding advice given over the telephone and did not have their own email address nor assigned caseworker, was arranged to attend IARC’s offices in person for further assistance.
See further What Works, Chapter 26 Technology-based services: telephone, video-conferencing, online and mobile technology, and case study 29.4.2 on the delivery of community legal education via Skype in Chapter 29 Community legal education.
1.7.10 COLLABORATIVE SERVICE DELIVERY PROGRAMS
Increasingly, LACs, CLCs and referral organisations are developing collaborative service delivery programs, in which lawyers actively collaborate with legal and non-legal service providers to identify and address the needs of clients experiencing disadvantage. This approach is based on the understanding that individuals often have interrelated legal and non-legal issues including housing, domestic violence and health issues.
Health justice partnerships (HJPs), for example, are (typically) outreach clinics in which pro bono lawyers work together with medical staff at a hospital or other health care location to improve the health and wellbeing of individuals, with an emphasis on early intervention. Legal issues disclosed in a health care setting can be identified and can start to be addressed on site. HJP programs are being developed or expanded in areas such as family violence prevention and with older people.
For more information see What Works, Chapter 21 Outreach and the National Centre for Health Justice Partnerships.
At a strategic level, taking a collaborative approach recognises that coordinating the planning and delivery of legal services, particularly in regional areas, enhances the use of scarce resources to improve access to justice. In regional NSW, for example, under the Collaborative Legal Service Delivery (CLSD) program coordinated by Legal Aid NSW, regional coalitions between CLCs, REFERRAL ORGANISATIONSs, Legal Aid NSW, Local Courts, law firms (both local and Sydney-based) and community organisations work to improve client outcomes by taking a coordinated approach to providing pro bono legal assistance, referrals to Legal Aid and/or referrals to non-legal agencies. Regional coalition projects include outreach clinics as well as referral programs, community legal education and training.
1.7.11 INTERNATIONAL PRO BONO
International pro bono legal work is generally defined as legal work that is focused outside of the country where the lawyer is based, and provided in response to both need and disadvantage within a recipient country. However, much of the work is usually performed in the country where the lawyer is based, rather than on an outreach basis, and may be done for organisations that operate programs in developing countries.
There is a diverse range of international pro bono legal work. Clients may be individuals, charities, development or aid organisations, other NGOs or governments. Legal work might include training, preparation of legal information/summaries of legislation, legal research, advising, negotiation, drafting, representation or advocacy, particularly in relation to rule-of-law development and public interest matters. International pro bono legal work also includes in-country volunteering programs where individual lawyers take on opportunities to provide pro bono legal work with a government or NGO in a particular country for an extended period.
See further What Works, Chapter 31 International pro bono.
This chapter was reviewed in 2022 by the Australian Pro Bono Centre and the pro bono team at HopgoodGanim Lawyers, headed by Leanne Collingburn. 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.
 For a break-down of the sources of pro bono legal work reported by respondents to the Centre’s 2020 National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey see Australian Pro Bono Centre, Report on the 7th National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey: Australian firms with 50 or more lawyers (Report, February 2021) 54 <https://www.probonocentre.org.au/information-on-pro-bono/survey/>.
 Australian Pro Bono Centre, Report on the 7th National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey: Australian firms with 50 or more lawyers (Report, February 2021) 58 <https://www.probonocentre.org.au/information-on-pro-bono/survey/>.
 For further information on video conferencing, see National Pro Bono Resource Centre, ‘The use of video conferencing technology to provide pro bono assistance to self-represented litigants in regional, rural and remote Australia’ (Conference Paper, Unrepresented Litigants – A challenge for Courts and Tribunals Conference, 15-17 April 2014) <https://www.probonocentre.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Video-conferencing-and-pro-bono-assistance-to-SRLs-Leanne-Ho.pdf>; Suzie Forell, Meg Laufer & Erol Digiusto, ‘Legal assistance by video conferencing: what is known?’, (Justice issues paper 15, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, 2011) <http://www.lawfoundation.net.au/ljf/app/&id=B0A936D88AF64726CA25796600008A3A>.
 See, e.g. Justice Connect, ‘Ending elder abuse through Health Justice Partnerships’, Seniors Law (Web Page) <https://justiceconnect.org.au/our-services/seniors-law/about-hjps/>.
 See Legal Aid NSW, ‘Cooperative Legal Service Delivery Program (CLSD)’, Community Partnerships (Web Page, 20 August 2020) <http://www.legalaid.nsw.gov.au/what-we-do/community-partnerships/cooperative-legal-services-delivery-clsd-program>.