Why pro bono is a legal thing

In light of a major report that has shown a marked increase in the number of Australian lawyers giving their time to pro bono work, Australasian Lawyer spoke to key industry players about why such work is a steadfast of the legal institution

The Australian legal profession has experienced an almost 50% increase in the number of participants covered by the National Pro Bono Aspirational Target in the past three years.

This is according to the latest 2012/13 annual report from the National Pro Bono Resource Centre, which shows that legal professionals embracing pro bono work is increasing at a rate of knots.

The Target is a voluntary program that law firms, incorporated legal practices, individual solicitors and barristers can become a signatory to by signing a Statement of Principles.

By doing this they agree to aspire to provide at least 35 hours of pro bono legal services, per lawyer per year.

More recently pro bono conditions have been included in the application process for the Commonwealth Services Multi-Use List (LSMUL), and from 1 July 2014 all firms on this list with more than 50 lawyers are required to become signatories to the Target.

Corrs Chambers Westgarth is one of the 79 Australian firms that are signatories.

Its national pro bono and community partner, Heidi Roberts, told Australasian Broker that pro bono work is “ingrained” in the law profession and is vital to the development of any lawyer.

“Pro bono work helps lawyers build professional skills. Often more junior lawyers will have more responsibility for a pro-bono matter than they would in another matter. They often get more client contact and are exposed to areas of law in respect of which they wouldn’t usually practise,” she said. “[It] really builds collaboration and team work amongst lawyers. Often our lawyers will work on a pro-bono matter with lawyers and partners from another practice group. They really learn from each other and come to understand each other’s expertise.”

Corrs is involved in a vast number of different and valuable pro bono projects, and Roberts says one of the most rewarding partnerships has been with Hagar Australia, who work within a group of international Hagar entities to support survivors of the most serious human rights abuse in Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Afghanistan.

This support includes a long term recovery program that offers legal aid by providing a local lawyer to sit with the survivor and talk them through the legal process.

In the past Corrs’ lawyers have travelled to Cambodia to do master classes for the lawyers there and provide professional development guidance.  The firm also sponsors the Cambodian Legal Protection Unit and covers the costs of Hagar employing Cambodian lawyers.

“Often the victims are children who have been victims of some sort of sexual abuse and will not have parents or other family that can help them, so this [lawyer] will be the person to support them,” says Roberts.
She notes that the pro bono work at home in Australia is also highly important.

Corrs’ work includes the implementation of legal clinics that address a number of societal issues including homelessness, aboriginal rights, employment law and refugee services.

“For me sometimes it’s the smaller matters that as a collective have a real impact,” says Roberts. “Through clinic work we can build a fact base for agendas for legal reform and the pro bono organisations we work with (such as Justice Connect) can use the case data to build advocacy for legal reform.”

She says pro bono work in the legal spectrum makes sense, because advancing people’s legal right is integral to everything in day-to-day life, from employment to education and having a place to live.

Because of the long-standing pro bono tradition in law, many firms also now put in place systems that encourage lawyers to take it up. This can include giving lawyers budget relief, allowing them to complete it within working hours, and including pro bono work considerations as part of performance reviews.

“It’s not something we do on top – it’s part of what we do, and it’s integrated. That really supports lawyers to make that contribution, says Roberts. “We become better lawyers because we get exposed to a broader range of clients, legal issues, and sectors of the economy.”

Across the ditch in New Zealand legal pro bono work is also gaining momentum.

From next year, it will be compulsory for students at a top law school at Canterbury University to complete at least 100 hours of pro bono work as a graduating requirement for their degree.

The Dean of Law there, Dr Chris Gallavin told Australasian Lawyer’s sister publication NZ Lawyer that the law school is setting up about 28 clinics where law students are to compulsorily engage with the public about topical issues.

“We have pro bono lawyers working with [the students]. They don’t give out legal advice, of course, because they’re not qualified. So we’ve got to be very careful that we don’t expose them to any professional liability or any danger of any sort,” he said. “They’ll be working with both academics and also practitioners and professionals.”

Gallavin says the move to make pro bono work a compulsory part of a law degree comes in response to concerns held by employers he’s spoken to who don’t want graduates who are only able to talk about the latest Supreme Court decision, but can actually communicate with real people.

“I’m not doing this to create service for the sake of service – I don’t want to turn them, necessarily, into bleeding-heart liberal,” he said. “I’m here saying, “Look, I recognise and so do employers, that there are core, important, tangible skills that you need to be able to pick up that will make you world-ready, not merely work-ready.” It sounds a bit cliché, but it’s true.”

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