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PRO BONO SURVEY RESULTS

Who’s Who Legal recently invited law firms to participate in our first ever global pro bono survey and we were greatly encouraged by the responses received from both national and international law firms representing all regions of the world. The responses provided an insight into the differing approaches to the practice of pro bono, the scale of engagement at different levels of seniority within firms as well as the steps taken to instil a pro bono culture.

In this special feature to mark National Pro Bono Week, Who’s Who Legal takes a closer look at how law firms are approaching pro bono and how the practice is developing. 

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Pro Bono is simply defined as ‘work for the public good without compensation’. In law firms, it often takes the form of free legal representation, legal clinics providing complimentary legal advice in the local community and projects working alongside charities or non-profit organisations. Over the last decade, the number of pro bono programmes has developed at an accelerated rate and today, pro bono is recognised as an instilled feature of law firm culture. According to our survey, 33 per cent of firms have been involved in pro bono activities in some form or another since their inception with 72 per cent formalising their pro bono practice in the last two decades.

Why do law firms place such great importance on having a pro bono programme? Essentially, it is a way in which firms can give back to their communities and it forms a part of their wider ‘corporate social responsibility’ image. However, for many lawyers it is more than that, it is gratifying work and the chance to make a difference. According to our survey, the most popular reason for engaging in pro bono activities is ‘commitment to a cause’. This was closely followed by ‘to assist those who may fall outside of the legal aid system’, ‘to give back to their local communities’ and ‘personal satisfaction’. The least popular responses were ‘free training’ and ‘networking opportunities’, suggesting that those engaging in pro bono activities are doing so for admirable reasons.

Alongside the increasing enthusiasm to deliver pro bono services, there is also a growing need. In the wake of the financial downturn, governments around the world are attempting to reduce their budget deficits by moderating public spending leading to cut backs to frontline advice agencies and legal aid. In light of these cuts, pro bono schemes are being relied on more than ever to, if not replace legal aid then ‘fill the gap’ between demand and service. In the UK, LawWorks and the Bar Pro Bono Unit, which act as clearing houses have reported a surge in demand for legal advice. LawWorks recorded a 69 per cent increase in calls to its helpline in the first half of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012 and the Bar Pro Bono Unit reported a 30 per cent increase in referrals for assistance. Legal Services Corporation, the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low income Americans also reports a ‘crisis’ in the growing level of demand for legal assistance and has made recommendations on how to get more lawyers involved in providing free legal services. While pro bono is not a replacement for a properly funded legal system, it can help to ensure that those in need have recourse to the law and lawyers often mentioned the phrase ‘something is better than nothing’ in this context.

In the same way that each law firm has a different culture, pro bono schemes vary greatly from firm to firm; there is no standardised approach. While some firms opt for secondments to charities, long-term projects working alongside non-profit organisations or even offering assistance in less developed areas of the world, others run free legal clinics in their local communities or represent individuals on death row.

An important step in formalising a pro bono practice within a firm is appointing a coordinator. Of all the firms who responded to our survey, only three did not have a coordinator. Of those which did, 75 per cent were lawyers (partners, associates or counsel). The significance of pro bono to law firms is evident in the appointment of ex-management committee partners as leaders of the practice; setting an example from above. In 2012, Vinson & Elkins named former firm-wide managing partner Harry Reasoner the new chairman of its pro bono committee. A similar approach was taken at Kirkland & Ellis where Thomas Yannucci, the former chair of the firm’s global management executive committee, was appointed co-chair of the pro bono management committee.

A second consideration for law firms is how to intertwine pro bono activities with the day-to-day billing work for clients. While some firms allow their lawyers to contribute a set number of pro bono hours towards their billable hour targets, others do not. In recent years, more firms have been moving towards the former model and 80 per cent of respondents in our survey count pro bono towards billable hour targets. Furthermore, all but two firms in our survey monitor their pro bono hours; 55 per cent of firms have a firmwide target while 44 per cent have individual lawyer targets. Several firms also consider a lawyers’ pro bono work when determining salary, bonuses and career advancement.

The number of hours contributed to pro bono on a yearly basis varies tremendously depending on the size of the firm. For the majority of law firms who responded to our survey, pro bono represents between one and five per cent of their total billed hours, however in terms of the number of hours contributed this ranged from below 1,000 to over 40,000. As the chart below shows there is a great range in the number of hours spent on pro bono which is largely due to the different size of firms taking part in the survey.

 

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In our survey, we also asked law firms to provide details on who was engaging in pro bono. We split the response into three sections: partners, associates and trainees. The results show that engagement at trainee level is much higher on average than engagement at partner level.  It was encouraging to note that associate level engagement was more mixed – an equal percentage of firms had above 70 per cent of associates involved as did those with between 11 and 25 per cent. As these results show there is a need to increase engagement at the senior level. One way in which this can be achieved is by way of individual lawyer targets for all members of the firm.

 

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As well as setting their own internal standards for individuals and the firm as a whole to meet, many are also a signatory to pro bono organisations which require a set contribution per year. Of those firms who took part in our survey, 67 per cent are a signatory to an organisation, the most popular being Pro Bono Institute’s Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge which requires law firms with more than 50 or more lawyers to target either five or three per cent of their firm’s total billable hours. The Pro Bono Institute, which was created in 1996 in Washington, DC, hopes that by promoting a percentage goal the challenge ties pro bono to firm productivity and profitability. On further inspection we found that 37 of the law firms in our Who’s Who Legal: 100, a guide to the leading law firms in the world, are a signatory to this challenge.

A further aspect revealed by our survey is the widespread practice of pro bono throughout the world; our survey attracted responses from countries including Egypt, India, South Korea, South Africa and several countries in Latin America. This is an encouraging sign that the practice of pro bono is spreading beyond the US and Europe where it has a long tradition. Notably these firms have installed similarly sophisticated practices including features such as targets and coordinators, and many are signatories to either local or international pro bono organisations.

A recurring theme when speaking to law firms was the notion of instilling a ‘pro bono culture’, deemed essential to a successful pro bono practice. Among the firms taking part in our survey, 94 per cent believed their firm to have realised a culture of pro bono citing the treatment of work as billable hours, the creation of formal committees to monitor and organise activities within the firm and ensuring pro bono participation counts towards career progression as ways in which the firm has achieved this.

Our survey also highlighted how the practice of pro bono is developing. Law firms have progressed from informal activities by certain individuals to large scale pro bono practices with full-time coordinators and targets for all members of the firm. The way in which pro bono activities are delivered is modernising and many firms reported the use of online submissions where those in need of pro bono support can apply. Firms are also beginning to look at global initiatives where all of the firm’s offices are involved. Sidley Austin recently launched its first firmwide global initiative – the Africa-Asia Agricultural Enterprise Programme – in which teams of lawyers from all offices around the world provide IP, licensing, contract, financing, export control, international trade and regulatory advice to empower farmers and small agricultural businesses.

Pro bono has become an established feature of law firms throughout the world and participation is on the rise. The past two decades has seen the formalisation of practices and the creation of a supportive infrastructure for the delivery of services, law firms are now well placed to tackle issues such as senior level participation and improving links between those in need and those offering services.

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