Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year 2015: DLA Piper

This year’s Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year Award is presented to DLA Piper, which stood out for its commitment to maintaining a leading practice and the ground breaking work it had undertaken. In an exclusive interview, its members discuss what it takes to establish and maintain a leading pro bono practice. 

Elizabeth Dewey

Elizabeth Dewey

The firm uses the size and scale of its global network to great effect, drawing on the skills of more than 4,200 lawyers globally. Last year it delivered 207,000 hours of pro bono advice to charities, individuals, social enterprises, UN agencies and NGOs – more than any other firm in our survey. Furthermore, in 2005 the firm established New Perimeter, a non-profit organisation that focuses on providing free legal advice to those in under-served regions around the world to support access to justice, social and economic development and sound legal institutions. Pro bono is an entrenched part of being a lawyer at DLA Piper; hours spent on activities are considered in annual performance reviews.

The practice is led by two full-time partners: Nicolas Patrick, head of pro bono and corporate responsibility (international) and Elizabeth Dewey, head of pro bono (US) and also director of New Perimeter. In the US, three (soon to be four) lawyers work full-time with Dewey to direct and manage the practice. There are additional dedicated pro bono counsel/managers in London, Paris, Dubai, Beijing, Sydney and Melbourne.

“Pro bono has become a global movement over the past 15 years,” says Patrick. When he first began as a pro bono lawyer there was one dedicated conference in Washington, DC. Now, the community convenes for conferences in Vietnam, China, Hungary, France, Australia, Poland, the UK, Germany, Nigeria, South Africa, Singapore, Hong Kong and Laos – just one indication of the extent to which pro bono and access to justice has become a truly global concern for the profession.  

Pro bono has altered in other ways too. “The perception that pro bono is mostly or primarily for litigators is no longer there,” says Dewey. Increasingly, lawyers are engaged in transactional matters allowing corporate and commercial lawyers to participate. This has also opened the doors for collaborative projects with in-house legal departments – something that DLA Piper has embraced. An example includes working with Goldman Sachs to teach courses on employment law and to help staff legal clinics for small business owners in Chicago and Miami who are participating in Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses programme.

At the heart of DLA Piper’s practice is its commitment to access to justice; as Dewey explains, “This guides us in everything we do.” While the firm is open to all matters covering any issue, by focusing on signature projects DLA Piper is able to hone its expertise and experience in particular areas maximising its success and impact over the long-term. Not only does this help build morale and camaraderie internally, but it also benefits the firm by acting as a centering mechanism. As Philip Zeidman, a partner in the Washington, DC office, explains, “We become a magnet for potential pro bono clients in these fields.” By having signature projects, the firm can also ensure matters resonate with lawyers in a specific region. For example, in London there is a signature project focused on the illegal wildlife trade, whereas in Chicago, the firm is well known for its expertise in juvenile justice.

The relationship with UNICEF is a further example. During the next three years DLA Piper will contribute £1 million in cash and £3 million in pro bono support to protect the rights of children who come into contact with justice systems around the world. Currently, the partnership is focused on a project in Bangladesh that seeks to address the legal reforms necessary to align the country’s legislation with international child rights standards.

The key to partner engagement, it seems, is “to provide pro bono opportunities that are appropriate to their level of experience”, according to Zeidman. “Senior lawyers want work they find interesting and challenging… that will extend them personally and professional[ly].” This is something Zeidman can attest to: “The sorts of things DLA Piper does provide rewards beyond the traditional notion of pro bono… I would say to any fellow partners considering whether to take on a project that it will be the most gratifying and rewarding experience they will have this year.”

The importance of partner engagement cannot be undervalued. “We bring judgement (not just age!) and in many cases contacts; we have the ability to pick up the phone and call someone with influence, authority or information” says Zeidman. Not only this, partners are also best placed to act as mentors to associates and engaging on pro bono matters benefits not only the clients but also the development of the firm’s internal talent.

An advisory board member of New Perimeter, Zeidman has been actively involved in the firm’s pro bono practice for years and has also served as the chair of the Pro Bono Foundation of the International Bar Association. He describes some of his recent work whereby New Perimeter assisted the IBA with background research related to its development of a smartphone application called eyeWitness, which promotes the identification, reporting and prosecution of crimes such as genocide and torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes by enabling users to upload images and/or videos from a smartphone or other internet-enabled media device to a central secure repository held and managed by the IBA. The information can then be provided to prosecutors to assist in bringing perpetrators to account. While balancing these commitments with client work can present a conflict, says Zeidman, “the real problem is the work is so interesting you don’t want to lay it aside!” Fortunately, the role of teams in billed work and pro bono work enables projects to be properly staffed and attended to.

“There is no challenge in terms of motivation,” says Patrick. “I’ve travelled worldwide and lawyers are consistently enthusiastic.” He does accept, however, that certain parts of the world pose more of a challenge than others – in particular continental Europe. The fact that the pro bono culture there is much less developed than in the US means that DLA Piper has to spend time visiting NGOs and charities, explaining pro bono and how the firm can help. “It can be much more difficult to find opportunities for lawyers to get involved with,” he concludes. However, Dewey adds, “New Perimeter enables lawyers in these jurisdictions to take part in projects involving post-conflict or less developed countries,” This circumvents some of the common difficulties and, as an added feature, encourages further collaboration among the firm’s lawyers across jurisdictions and practice areas.

In order for lawyers to take part in New Perimeter projects they must respond to project solicitations and apply – it is a competitive process whereby the team looks to find the right level of experience and skills for each project. That being said, pro bono projects at the firm often act as a great way for younger lawyers to gain first-hand experience in areas they had not previously encountered. Examples include presenting in court, developing strategy and drafting, as well as getting more client exposure.

It is difficult to mention pro bono without considering the huge cuts to legal aid made by governments across the world since the onset of the financial crisis. As Patrick says, “Reduced spending… has increased legal need in areas such as unemployment, welfare benefits, discrimination, housing and debt.” The ensuing political instability has also seen an increase in movement among people increasing the legal need in areas such as refugee, asylum and immigration work. In response, DLA Piper operates clinics around the world providing assistance in these types of cases. To match the increasing need, between 2012 and 2013 the firm increased its total number of pro bono hours by 8 per cent. In Patrick’s words, lawyers “realise that access to justice is an important human right, and it is also an important precondition to a number of other rights”.

Do challenges remain? Increasing the number of pro bono hours and participation across continental Europe is one target for the firm, but another is to work with DLA Piper’s relationship firms in Africa to align their approach to pro bono. “We want to support firms in our network to establish practices,” says Patrick. “We are fortunate to be able to share resources like our pro bono policy, expertise and our relationships with global NGOs and governments in less developed countries.”

The goal at DLA Piper is to “have the leading pro bono practice in each jurisdiction where the firm has a presence”. While this may mean different things in different locations, the firm strives to ensure that every lawyer has the opportunity to undertake pro bono work and that its clients receive the same level of service as those who are fee-paying.

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Nominees have been selected based upon comprehensive, independent survey work with both general counsel and private practice lawyers worldwide. Only specialists who have met independent international research criteria are listed.

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