Scaling pro bono will be critical to ensuring the private sector fulfils its role in creating a more equitable and sustainable world post-COVID.
Governments around the world and a shell-shocked private sector are making plans to accelerate the post COVID-19 economic recovery. Strategies are being devised to solve unemployment and cure ailing government and private sector balance sheets. Hot on the current agenda are concerns about regulatory supervision for the recovery period, tax reform to enhance growth, and the extension of flexible working practices.
This recovery presents unique considerations, not just because of the extreme challenges it presents, but because of the expectations it has created. The pandemic has given us a once in a lifetime opportunity to pause and see our society in the plainest of views. Yes, the magnitude of the crisis has highlighted the importance of immediate and substantial government responses to protect society’s most vulnerable. But it has also highlighted the significance of the private sector in public life by demonstrating in the starkest terms our interconnectedness and interdependence.
In the post-COVID world, society and government will expect and demand that the private sector plays an expanded role in serving and protecting communities beyond fulfilling its narrow business objectives. This new ‘social contract’ will require a stronger commitment to ensuring human rights are protected throughout commercial practices. Philanthropy is and will remain critical and should be prioritised. But this crisis presents leaders in the private sector with an opportunity to get radical and adopt a practice of giving and a connection with community they may previously have resisted. Post-COVID, those that offer their most valuable resource – their people – to share their talents, skills and expertise pro bono to rebuild their local communities or to work collaboratively to scale global action for a more sustainable future will be rewarded.
The legal profession in Australia and in other jurisdictions including the US has long espoused the importance of working pro bono. Pro bono legal work has been steadily growing in the last two decades globally. Pro bono is so embedded in the practice of many law firms that there are at least 68 known examples of dedicated pro bono partners in law firms across the world. In the last financial year, Australian lawyers reported to the Australian Pro Bono Centre over 470,000 hours of vital pro bono legal support for disadvantaged individuals and the community organisations that serve them – including charities, not-for-profits and social enterprises. Over 160 law firms, individual solicitors and barristers are signatories to the National Pro Bono Target run by the Centre, under which they pledge to do their best to achieve an average of 35 hours of pro bono work per lawyer per year.
Despite facing severe operational challenges, the legal profession’s response to the pandemic has been swift. Many law firms and in-house lawyers have rallied to offer pro bono support and are protecting their pro bono teams despite remote-working challenges, a reduction by some firms in staff hours and remuneration, and cuts to senior leadership profit withdrawals. The level of unmet need in our communities was already significant before the current crisis. It’s colossal now. Pro bono must be prioritised both during and post-COVID. Even with the additional government support currently being provided, pro bono is, and will continue to be, a lifeline for many vulnerable individuals impacted by the pandemic and many charities, not-for-profit organisations, other community organisations and social enterprises in dire need of support.
Many of the world’s top law firms with established pro bono practices view pro bono as an essential part of what they do – even in these turbulent times. But if law firms with less established pro bono practices and business leaders in other sectors need more of an incentive to prioritise pro bono, here it is: in the post-COVID world, pro bono will become an even more important tool for organisations to attract and retain the best people. These challenging circumstances are testing our values – both our private values and those of the organisations we work for. It’s predictable that when we come out of this crisis, employees will seek a better quality of life and will look for jobs that not only further their organisation’s private interests but also contribute more broadly to the world around them. Staff morale may even demand this.
If private sector leaders get this right, they will not only attract the best recruits when the economy recovers post-COVID, they will also enjoy higher retention rates, benefitting the bottom line. Pro bono offers something unique. It gives employees a platform in their professional life to contribute their unique skills to the betterment of society and to those less fortunate than themselves, and that is a form of empowerment that leads to a dual sense of pride – both in oneself and in one’s employer.
As clients, suppliers and other key stakeholders increasingly focus on their own responsible business practices and their unique role and social purpose within their communities, they will also favour relationships with organisations in the private sector that demonstrate their commitment through pro bono work. As will investors. Pro bono work will be a way for organisations to distinguish themselves from their peers. What may be considered a drain on resources is actually good business.
From a marketing perspective, pro bono related publicity is inherently more credible than paid ads and can make for the ultimate good news stories. Why? Because it feeds into our natural human instinct to help others and have stronger, and more human, connections to our communities. This will be critical post-COVID.
Let’s not forget that pro bono matters can also provide excellent professional development opportunities for staff. Writing, research, client/customer communications, interviewing, negotiation and problem-solving skills can all be enhanced through pro bono. Pro bono can offer the opportunity to exercise skills and judgment in a new context that leads to significant professional growth.
Whatever the incentive needed to do pro bono work, senior leadership needs to fully support it. Leaders need to remind their staff, actively and regularly, about the importance and benefits of pro bono involvement. Staff need to be allocated the time required to be involved. Pro bono good news stories should be promoted among staff in a way that articulates the impact of involvement on both the beneficiaries and the individuals who lend their skills. Pro bono opportunities that match the skillsets of staff need to be actively pursued – ideally through pro bono referral schemes, community centre networks and other organisations or collaborations that allocate pro bono projects to charities, not-for-profits and community organisations requiring assistance. Those opportunities should then be well coordinated and distributed among staff.
The new clarity provided by the pandemic is causing us to expect something far richer than the status quo. This, more than any other period in recent history, is the time for responsible business and for fostering a longer-term collective morality. Scaling pro bono will be critical to ensuring the private sector fulfils its role in creating a more equitable and sustainable world post-COVID.