International Pro Bono
The legal community has seen pro bono legal work expand internationally, as part of a global pro bono movement. This page examines the nature of international pro bono legal work and provides a historical context. This page is useful for those who are interested in the origins of the global pro bono movement and identifying the notable pro bono organisations that are contributing to the shifting international focus.
What is international pro bono?
Since the mid-2000s, there has been a trend towards internationalisation of pro bono legal work, particularly emanating from the US and the UK. It has been said that this development within the legal community is connected to changes in the scope and ambition of the “corporate responsibility” initiatives of many multinational corporations that are clients of the firms leading the internationalization of pro bono services.’¹
The increasing globalisation of law firms has been a factor in this trend. US firms that opened offices in London post-2000 brought a strong pro bono culture with them. It is claimed² that the concept of international pro bono work was born in the US when the American Bar Association set up the Central and Eastern European Law Initiative in 1990 to provide assistance in former communist countries.
The large firms have increasingly focused on doing work for large corporate clients that operate in multiple countries. The internationalisation of pro bono has followed this trend in general practice. Some firms have sought pro bono work that matches their lawyers’ legal skills, for example, looking for pro bono projects that require expertise in areas of cross-border transactions and agreements, joint venture negotiations, advice on corporate restructuring and international trade agreements. Others have chosen human rights issues such as human trafficking or alleviation of poverty. Each law firm, brokering organisation, or initiative will often have distinct areas of focus for its pro bono work either geographically, by area of social need or area of law, or a combination of these factors.
International pro bono work is therefore generally considered to be legal work that is focused on meeting legal need outside the countries where a law firm has an office. This still means that much of the legal work is carried out in the country where the lawyer is based, as is the legal work done for organisations whose focus may be on programmes in developing countries but the organisations are often based in the same country as the lawyer doing the work. Pro bono development and enthusiasm has sometimes been driven by the legal assistance required in the aftermath of disasters or emergencies.³
¹ Maya Steinitz, ‘Internationalized Pro Bono and a New Global Role of Lawyers in the 21st Century: Lessons from Nation Building in Southern Sudan’ (2000) 12 Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal 205.
² The Law Society (UK), ‘A helping hand’ (2 August 2007), The Law Gazette www.lawgazette.co.uk/features/a-helping-hand-1
³ In May 2005, following the Asian Tsunami of 2004, Oxfam and other charities initiated the ‘1,000 City Lawyers Project in London, which sought to recruit at least 1,000 lawyers from the City of London to take action by signing the ‘Make Poverty History’ declaration and taking legal action to help rebuild the communities affected.
The rise of the global pro bono movement
Since the 1990s, there has been a dramatic increase in structured pro bono work in the US, Europe, Canada, Australia and to a lesser extent in other countries. Latham and Watkins’ global survey of pro bono practices (2012) identified a pro bono legal culture in 71 countries ranging alphabetically from Angola to Venezuela.
It was said in 2005⁴ that this increase is principally a response to a persistent, and in some countries growing, inadequacy of legal services and the growing influence of American law firms and legal culture. It can be said in 2016 that the growth of global law firms is a significant contributing factor.
The increasing international influence on pro bono legal practice has given pro bono providers opportunities to learn from the experience of other countries. The US has played a leadership role in this regard, particularly through the American Bar Association’s introduction of Rule 6.1 for Voluntary Pro Bono Service in 1983 (amended to set an annual target of 50 hours per lawyer in 1993), and the private profession’s establishment of the Pro Bono Institute in 1996. Expertise has since developed and evolved in other parts of the world, including in Australia.⁵
The internationalisation of pro bono legal work has depended notably on the rise of the large law firm (not always global firms) whose clients are predominantly corporations operating in multiple countries. It is primarily the large firms that have provided the resources and prestige to promote pro bono as a central professional goal, but this is to take nothing away from small firms, sole practitioners and particularly barristers, some who have, for a very long time, contributed extraordinary amounts of pro bono legal work, often on an ad hoc basis usually motivated by gross injustices and unmet legal need.
Recognition of international pro bono legal work by governments and professional bodies came in the form of declarations of support that outlined principles for the way in which the work should be done. The Council of the International Bar Association (IBA) made its first Pro Bono Declaration in October 2008, and many other countries now have pro bono declarations or statements of principles.
Government have acknowledged the international pro bono movement. The UK Attorney-General’s International Pro Bono Committee was established in January 2007, endorsed a Statement of Principles for International Pro Bono Work in 2009, and in Australia, the Attorney-General’s International Pro Bono Advisory Group was set up in July 2009. International pro bono was considered at a meeting of Senior Officials of Commonwealth Law Ministries in 2010.⁶ For a timeline of the development of protocols and statements of principle in relation to pro bono legal work, please see below.
⁴ Deborah L Rhode, Pro Bono in Principle and in Practice, Stanford University Press 2005, p. 102.
⁶ In May 2005, following the Asian Tsunami of 2004, Oxfam and other charities initiated the ‘1,000 City Lawyers Project in London, which sought to recruit at least 1,000 lawyers from the City of London to take action by signing the ‘Make Poverty History’ declaration and taking legal action to help rebuild the communities affected.
Protocols/Statements of Principle
A number of jurisdictions have developed protocols and statements of principle in relation to pro bono legal work that have supported its development.
More information and links can be found in under International Protocols section of Other Information and Resources on this site.
International pro bono by Australian law firms
The Australian Pro Bono Centre uses the following definition of international pro bono legal work:
International Pro Bono Legal Work is pro bono legal work focussed outside of Australia, and in response to both need and disadvantage within a recipient country. It may include the provision of direct legal advice and representation, assistance with law reform or other systemic legal issues, legal training and education, and judicial assistance.
Based on this definition, about a third of Australian Law Firms with 50 or more lawyers indicated in 2104 that they were involved in some form of International Pro Bono in 2014.
However, the proportion of these firms’ pro bono contribution that was devoted to international pro bono legal work varied greatly from 0.9 percent to 38 per cent, with 71% of these firms only undertaking between 0-5% of their total pro bono legal work for the year. (Results from Fourth National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey of Australian firms with fifty or more lawyers).
Key pro bono organisations
A number of pro bono organisations have grown up to facilitate the delivery and expansion of international pro bono legal work. These pro bono organisations tend to be quite unique as the following examples demonstrate.
The first is PILnet, established in 1997 as the Public Interest Law Initiative in Transitional Societies (PILI) at Columbia University, New York. It has facilitated pro bono development in Europe through the development of clearing houses in Hungary, Russia and China and conducting an annual European Pro Bono Forum every year since 2007. PILnet is unique in its endeavours in seeking to develop the pro bono culture across Europe but has a worldwide focus.
An arm of the worldwide media company, Thomson Reuters, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, became involved in international pro bono in 2010 when it established TrustLaw, a broker that aims to bring together legal teams to provide free legal advice for NGOs and social enterprises in any jurisdiction in the world. TrustLaw has grown rapidly and now has over 2200 members.
The third example is the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP) that started initially in the US in 2001 but now has affiliate offices for the UK (in London) and Europe (in Paris). Its uniqueness relates to the use of highly experienced attorneys, near or at retirement, who want to stay professionally active. It has three broad areas of focus: human rights; equitable and sustainable economic development; and rule of law.
Another unique entity devoted to providing international pro bono was established by a single global law firm, DLA Piper. New Perimeter was created as a separate entity in 2005, specifically to provide long-term, high-impact pro bono legal support to qualifying non-profit organisations, governments and academic institutions primarily in developing and post-conflict regions. Guided by a broad Advisory Board, New Perimeter has developed a strong strategic direction for its programme, focusing its work on legal education, women’s and children’s rights, access to justice and law reform, environmental protection, economic development and food security.
A detailed directory of other pro bono organisations can be found on our International Pro Bono Organisations page.
Type of work
Below is a list of seven general categories of international pro bono legal work. Whilst the categories overlap to some degree, they provide a framework for understanding the nature of this work. Common themes are building country capacity, improving access to justice and strengthening the rule of law in developing countries.
- Building and strengthening legal systems and institutions
- Improving access to justice and law reform
- Community legal education
- Nation-building and economic development
- Environmental protection
- Gender equality
- Hunger and food security
Large law firms have strong corporate law skills and a number of the projects and initiatives can be seen to utilise these skills successfully. These tend to be projects for larger, well-organised NGOs and charities that have a track record of delivering outcomes in the countries where they operate. These organisations can benefit considerably from good governance, structuring, tax, intellectual property and general commercial law advice. The legal support helps them to successfully implement significant initiatives by providing the necessary contractual and commercial arrangements that underpin their operation or a particular project, and help troubleshoot other issues that may arise, such as regulatory issues. Pro bono legal support for these organisations makes good sense as the core skills of large law firms are well matched to the need of these organisations and are utilised to deliver outcomes that potentially affect the lives of many.
A second observation is that, consistent with the ethos of pro bono work of prioritising a limited resource towards the greatest unmet social need, much international pro bono work is directed towards significant and apparent injustices, and towards egregious breaches of human rights.
Issues such as the following are often difficult to tackle: for example, the treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS; human trafficking; the plight of refugees; the lack of inheritance for women and women’s rights generally; gender-based violence; and the treatment of minors.
Importantly, pro bono legal work addressing these issues is most effectively carried out when it is in partnership with organisations that are on the ground and working with the community, and when the legal brief is developed in consultation with these organisations. The sources or points of referral for this work vary widely.
The text on this page is an abridged version of a Chapter by John Corker from ‘Poverty, Justice and the Rule of Law: the Report of the Second Phase of the International Bar Association Presidential Taskforce on the Global Financial Crisis’, edited by Peter D Maynard and Neil Gold (2013).