Setting up and maintaining a pro bono program involves making decisions about the roles and structures required to coordinate the flow of pro bono legal work, both within the firm and with external stakeholders such as clients, community partners and other firms.
Effective coordination makes a pro bono program stronger and more sustainable. A program is more credible if it operates according to robust, structured processes that are aligned with the culture of the firm and its other business processes.
Effective coordination generally involves:
- demonstrating strong and energetic leadership;
- generating pro bono legal work or organising pro bono projects;
- assessing, approving and allocating pro bono legal work;
- ensuring appropriate lines of supervision of the work are in place;
- building an understanding of and a respect for community and public interest law;
- investing significantly in internal and external relationships and networks; and
- forging strong links between the pro bono practice and the firm’s business units (such as human resources and finance).
A firm that is developing its pro bono program needs to consider the coordination tasks involved, and what roles and structures need to be put in place. These should be reviewed as the program objectives evolve or as new types of matters or projects are taken on.
This chapter discusses the different approaches to coordination, explains the roles and structures that are commonly used, and gives an overview of pro bono coordination tasks.
1.9.1 GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS
LEADERSHIP AND MANAGEMENT FUNCTIONS
Coordination structures vary across large, mid-sized and small firms, due to the differences in firm culture and in the scale of pro bono programs.
Coordination encompasses both:
- leadership of the pro bono program — including responsibility for strategic decisions, projects and relationships, strategic planning, resolving conflicts of interest, promoting the program internally and the program’s overall success; and
- day to day management of the pro bono practice — including assessing routine requests for assistance, allocating, monitoring and supervising pro bono legal work, liaising with referral agencies and evaluating the program.
While firms approach pro bono coordination in various ways, the most common feature of coordination in well-established pro bono practices, and a key indicator of a firm’s commitment to its pro bono program,1 is a strong leadership function.
In large firms with established pro bono programs, the leadership function is often assigned to a partner, special counsel or director, while responsibility for day to day management of the practice rests with other pro bono lawyers and team members. National or international firms often appoint a pro bono leader (known as, for example, Pro Bono Partner, Special Counsel, Director, Manager or Head), one or two pro bono lawyers (sometimes known as Coordinators), and a pro bono contact (or Coordinator) in each State. The results of the Centre’s 2014 National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey showed that out of the 48.4 dedicated pro bono lawyers reported by 23 respondent firms, 8.45 were partners, 13.65 were senior associates, 15 were associates/lawyers and six were graduates.2 Some large firms also appoint a commercial partner with an interest in pro bono to do some general supervision and act as a champion for pro bono. In some firms, assessing and approving significant or sensitive matters is done by a pro bono committee.
In mid-sized and small firms, more often a single person (whether a partner, special counsel or senior associate) will perform both leadership and management functions. In some firms, they may perform the role part-time, balancing pro bono coordination with commercial practice. As a minimum, there should be a person appointed to coordinate the intake of pro bono legal work, and if there is more than one office, it is helpful to appoint a local pro bono contact in each office: see What Works, Chapter 8 Tips for planning and maintaining relationships.
In mid-sized firms, appointing a senior pro bono contact in each practice group who can assist with the placement of ad hoc matters or discuss projects helps to maintain visibility over pro bono legal work in the group. Ideally, if a partner in each group is also appointed as a pro bono contact, they can advise on the group’s performance at a strategic level, in view of the firm’s broader objectives. This also enables the partner to be engaged with the pro bono program without needing to be involved in management or operational issues.
THE PROGRAM OBJECTIVES
The best way for a firm to coordinate its pro bono program will also depend on the program’s strategic objectives (see 1.3.3 Program objectives).
For example, if one of the strategic objectives is to build stronger support for pro bono across the firm, the coordination structures might include appointing an influential pro bono partner and several pro bono champions.
COORDINATING THE SUPERVISION OF PRO BONO LEGAL WORK
Throughout any pro bono program, making sure there are appropriate lines of supervision over pro bono legal work is a critical aspect of effective coordination, just as it is for commercial legal work.
This involves ensuring both the quantity and the quality of the work are consistent with the firm’s pro bono objectives and professional standards.
Monitoring and supervising the quantity of hours worked and the disbursements or expenses incurred ensures that resources are being spent on pro bono legal work appropriately. This is usually done by monitoring contemporaneous records using the firm’s matter management or billing systems. See Chapter 1.13 Evaluation.
Supervising the quality of pro bono legal work ensures it meets the same standards of attention, priority and professional performance as commercial work. For example, each matter should have an allocated supervising partner. Pro bono may also involve supervisory arrangements on top of those applied to the firm’s other work because:
- the nature of the work, the types of legal issues and the processes of pro bono might be unfamiliar to lawyers;
- pro bono clients might not be in a position to query the quality of the legal advice or service being provided; and
- pro bono matters might require expertise from more than one practice group in the firm requiring arrangements between groups and with different partners, which take into account varying capacity and time constraints.
The roles, structures and processes used to supervise pro bono legal work will vary according to the model of pro bono legal assistance adopted.
Casework, for example, will require the supervision of a partner in the firm with relevant expertise. It may also require regular reports to the pro bono coordinator or committee. See further 2.1.3 Allocation and supervision in relation to casework procedures.
For secondments, although the quality of a secondee’s work is usually supervised by the host organisation, the firm will also need to ensure their work complies with the terms of the secondment and that the arrangement is running well. See further 2.3.5 Supervision, training, support and recognition in relation to secondments.
For clinics, pro bono legal work should be supervised at the clinic and may be checked by supervisors at the firm. This is especially important given the different experiences and cultural differences between the firm and the host organisation. Although clinics are often staffed by lawyers who are considered to be on ‘sessional secondment’, clinic lawyers do not always adjust to the host organisation’s work practices as quickly as long-term secondees would do.
Depending on the clinic model adopted, the firm, rather than the clinic may be on risk. Firms should assign sufficiently experienced lawyers to manage and supervise their clinic teams, and ensure training is provided in the relevant areas of law and in the host organisation’s practices. The pro bono coordinator should also be prepared to supervise matters as necessary, answer questions, and ensure matters are run properly and returned to the host organisation. Advice about running matters should be sought from the host organisation as needed.
For more information see What Works, Chapter 20 Clinics.
1.9.2 KEY ROLES AND STRUCTURES IN DETAIL
Some roles and structures commonly used to coordinate pro bono programs include:
- pro bono leader;
- pro bono committee;
- pro bono coordinator, manager, director or counsel;
- pro bono administrator; and
- pro bono champion.
These are discussed in more detail below.
PRO BONO LEADER
Some large firms appoint a separate pro bono leader, such as a partner or director, whose main role is to set strategic direction, manage projects, create new relationships and oversee the program, including:
- signing off on strategy and planning documents;
- providing the pro bono coordinator with high level strategy from the board;
- resolving conflict of interest issues;
- identifying and forging opportunities for strategic projects or partnerships;
- monitoring the pro bono policy and the program’s performance against objectives and budget;
- signing off on memoranda, matter allocations, disbursements and budget;
- signing off on projects and strategic collaborations;
- assisting to resolve any internal hurdles and issues with business groups of the firm; and
- promoting pro bono legal work to the partnership, and the firm, and promoting the program externally.
PRO BONO COMMITTEE
Pro bono committees can have various functions. Typically they assess and approve requests for pro bono assistance in sensitive or significant matters, resolve conflict of interest issues or perform a general advisory function. A committee with a broad membership across practice groups can help to harness support for pro bono firm-wide, which is useful in the early stages of building a pro bono practice. It can also bolster the sustainability of the program by spreading the responsibility for pro bono across the firm, so the program is less at risk.
In a firm with a pro bono coordinator, the committee should ideally take an advisory role, rather than reviewing every potential new matter or every decision about the practice. In this situation the pro bono coordinator will often have the authority to make certain decisions autonomously: for example, approving the intake of matters with less than a predetermined estimate of fees or hours.
It is helpful if the committee has a broad-based membership from different divisions and levels in the firm, from senior partners to junior lawyers, including influential and respected people who can actively encourage support for the program. Some firms include practice group leaders representing commercial, property, and other non-litigation divisions.
It is important that committee members have a keen interest in the firm’s pro bono practice. They must be prepared to justify their decisions, including approvals of new pro bono matters, to the firm. Calls for expressions of interest for committee membership should make it clear that it involves policy and administration, rather than actually doing the pro bono legal work.
The work of committee members should be recognised as a contribution to the firm. It is desirable that committee members’ time in coordinating, planning and related tasks is recorded, ideally through the use of a matter number, and distinguished from time spent on pro bono legal work. In addition, the work should be taken into account in performance appraisal, advancement and salary review.
PRO BONO COORDINATOR
Pro bono coordinators (sometimes known as managers) are the primary intake point for pro bono matters. As discussed above, the pro bono leader may also be the coordinator. Coordinators are usually responsible for assessing and approving routine pro bono matters; however, approval processes vary from firm to firm, and different types of matters may require the approval of a coordinator, pro bono partner or pro bono committee. See 2.1.2 Assessment and approval.
Coordinators will generally allocate approved matters within the firm using a range of approaches including:
- emails to all staff or to lawyers who have expressed interest;
- personally approaching lawyers in relevant practice groups; and/or
- contacting a partner or pro bono champion in the relevant area to see who in the group might be able to take on the matter.
Some coordinators may themselves have a significant pro bono casework practice while others, particularly part-time coordinators, may do little casework. Some coordinators have supervision and mentoring roles in their areas of expertise. In the Centre’s 2014 National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey, 38 respondent firms (93%) reported that their firm had a pro bono coordinator (defined as a person with primary responsibility for pro bono legal coordination).3 Of the 38 firms with a pro bono coordinator, 12 (32%) had a coordinator who performed the role on a full-time basis.4
Firms should be aware that part-time coordinators may experience tension between the demands of their pro bono work and their commercial practice. There might be occasions when the balance needs to be considered by the pro bono committee and possibly adjusted, particularly where the coordinator is a partner.
In some firms pro bono coordinators are also responsible for the firm’s broader CSR program or a non-legal volunteering or charitable program. Other firms keep the administration of these programs separate.5
ALLOCATING AND CREDITING COORDINATORS’ TIME
Although some pro bono coordinators engage in casework as well as coordinating the program, they usually spend a significant proportion of their time on coordination tasks to ensure the pro bono practice runs efficiently and effectively. This time should be recorded and credited in the same way as for billable work, by assigning pro bono coordination work a matter number and entering time against it. Recording coordination time enables it to be monitored, evaluated and properly recognised by the firm. See Chapter 1.11 Crediting and recognising pro bono legal work and Chapter 1.13 Evaluation.
It is also important that commercial lawyers who are also performing the role of pro bono coordinator are given sufficient fee relief to permit their pro bono activities. These lawyers should:
- have their commercial budget decreased to make allowances for their pro bono coordination time; and
- ensure their pro bono time is recorded to a coordination matter number.
It is up to each firm to decide whether to include pro bono coordination time and pro bono committee work (or part of it) as contributing to the firm’s pro bono hours. However, the policy and administration work involved in pro bono coordination is not considered ‘pro bono legal work’ for the purposes of reporting on the National Pro Bono Aspirational Target or in the National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey, unless it is akin to legal work within the definition.
PRO BONO ADMINISTRATOR
Coordinating a pro bono practice involves a significant amount of administrative work. A pro bono administrator can reduce the pro bono coordinator’s load by allowing them to focus on other tasks such as supervision, mentoring and casework. This role could be undertaken by a secretary or paralegal.
A pro bono administrator’s role may involve:
- assisting with the intake and assessment processes such as conflict checks;
- assisting with the allocation of matters;
- keeping documentation on matters that are either accepted or rejected;
- assisting with the assessment of statistics from pro bono and commercial production reports, identifying how pro bono legal work is spread across the firm, comparing statistics against previous years, and monitoring progress in relation to pro bono targets; and
- implementing procedures for opening and closing matters.
PRO BONO CHAMPION
Bringing together individuals who share a similar commitment to social justice and access to justice can really drive the development of pro bono within the firm, particularly where these are people in a position to influence the firm. The existence of pro bono champions is critical to the development of a strong pro bono culture within the firm. See Chapter 1.4 Promoting a pro bono culture.
Pro bono champions who are respected partners, senior associates or business unit leaders can influence the firm in a number of ways, for example, by:
- generally facilitating support for pro bono;
- encouraging participation in and supervising pro bono legal work;
- investing time in furthering the pro bono practice, for example by sitting on the pro bono committee; and
- providing leadership with respect to the strategic direction of the firm’s pro bono program.
Pro bono champions are also important in an in-house context. In-house lawyers who are responsible for managing a pro bono partnership with a law firm will often be the pro bono champion in their team.
1.9.3 COORDINATION TASKS
This section provides an overview of the coordination tasks required in the development and maintenance phases of a pro bono program. A firm will need to decide how to allocate responsibility for particular tasks between its pro bono committee and pro bono partners, coordinators or others who are responsible for oversight and administration of the program.
Coordination tasks in the development phase of establishing a pro bono program include:
- preparing proposals and reports to the leadership on pro bono (including the business case and professional responsibility issues);
- preparing and/or signing off on a pro bono policy and a strategic plan;
- proposing an annual pro bono target and budget;
- communicating and promoting pro bono within the firm;
- surveying current firm activity, areas of interest, expertise and contacts;
- developing procedures, guidelines and precedents;
- integrating systems for matter management, time recording and accounting on pro bono matters with the firm’s existing systems (for example, crediting time);
- establishing relationships with PBROs, legal and community groups and not-for-profit associations to ascertain their needs, develop priorities and identify sources of pro bono matters;
- identifying and developing pro bono opportunities for different practice groups in the firm and for different levels of lawyers in the firm;
- developing strong communication channels with the business units in the firm (such as human resources and finance); and
- preparing standardised wording in relation to the pro bono program that can be used in tenders and promotional materials.
Note that smaller pro bono programs will not necessarily need to undertake all these tasks.
Coordination tasks for maintaining programs may include:
- liaising and developing relationships with external agencies (such as community legal centres and Legal Aid Commissions) to maintain sources of work and investigate new sources;
- liaising with other firms or pro bono providers (such as barristers) to investigate opportunities for joint projects or training;
- resolving conflicts of interest;
- publicising and promoting pro bono legal work within the firm (for example, through material in firm newsletters, intranet or bulletins; organising seminars and/or presentations by organisations and others in need of pro bono services; email reports advertising pro bono opportunities; meeting with partners, team/division heads);
- preparing information and marketing material for the firm’s website, social media presence and other publications;
- developing pro bono projects and opportunities, including:
- developing opportunities for participation by all at the firm; and
- exploring and organising opportunities for ‘external’ pro bono (for example, secondments, participation in community legal centre advice clinics);
- receiving, screening and processing pro bono requests from within the firm and from external sources (this may include decisions about costs, disbursements, conflict checks, extent of the work to be done and other matters) and allocating work within the firm;
- ensuring that the firm’s pro bono policy and procedures are implemented and periodically reviewed, revised and improved;
- monitoring and evaluating the program, including:
- records of all pro bono legal work being handled in the firm;
- resources being allocated to matters (in some firms, this would include monitoring regular billing of pro bono matters);
- interests and expertise in the firm;
- levels of participation within the firm;
- performance (against the pro bono target and budget); and
- periodic evaluation of the program or particular matters/projects.
- collecting and maintaining data about requests, refusals, approvals, time and other resources allocated to pro bono;
- reporting to the firm (as appropriate, having regard to firm management structures) on a periodic basis on specific matters which might include:
- whether the firm’s objectives for the delivery of pro bono services have been fulfilled, for example, the annual target;
- the resources allocated to pro bono legal work over the reporting period as well as any income from the program by way of costs awards;
- the kinds of services provided and to whom they were provided;
- the number of lawyers and non-lawyers participating in the program;
- a description of projects and tasks completed by the coordinator or committee or partner to promote and encourage pro bono and anticipated projects and tasks; and
- recommendations about future targets and budgets, and other changes to the pro bono program;
- undertaking pro bono legal work for clients, and/or supervising and/or assisting others in the firm handling pro bono matters;
- developing projects for vacation clerks;
- developing the firm’s library and IT resources in specific areas of law;
- organising training for particular pro bono activities and encouraging individuals to attend training programs;
- liaising with, providing support to and receiving feedback from secondees and/or from participants in other projects; and
- participating in promoting pro bono legal work to the legal community and more generally.
2 National Pro Bono Resource Centre, Fourth National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey (Australian law firms with fifty or more lawyers) – Final Report, December 2014, pp 50-51, https://probonocentre.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/4th_National_Law_Firm_Pro_Bono_Survey_2014_Final_Report.pdf.
3 National Pro Bono Resource Centre, above n 2, p 49. https://probonocentre.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/4th_National_Law_Firm_Pro_Bono_Survey_2014_Final_Report.pdf
4 National Pro Bono Resource Centre, above n 2, p 49. https://probonocentre.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/4th_National_Law_Firm_Pro_Bono_Survey_2014_Final_Report.pdf
5 See further J Corker, ‘Pro Bono and Corporate Social Responsibility: Reputation building, recruitment, retention and client relationships’, Law Society of New South Wales website at http://www.lawsociety.com.au/ForSolictors/CareerHub/YourCareer/Differentlegalcareers/Articles/ProBonoandCorporateSocial Responsibility/index.htm#sthash.EIwqjxPh.dpuf.