The 2019 Who’s Who Legal Pro Bono Award is presented to Clayton Utz in recognition of the outstanding work that the firm has undertaken over the past 12 months. Clayton Utz’s pro bono practice has been running for over 20 years and has helped out on over 1,300 matters in the past year alone. Among the many important cases the firm takes on are the representation of low-income and vulnerable individuals in Australia who cannot obtain legal aid.
The firm has built a dedicated pro bono culture, with high engagement figures at all levels of seniority and two dedicated pro bono partners providing leadership and expertise in the cases handled. It has also registered impressive work with 170 NGOs and charities in the past year alone, which further distinguished it among the competition in this year’s survey. It became clear that Clayton Utz demonstrates outstanding passion across the firm for pro bono work that is of vital importance to the communities it is a part of, and that its efforts have had a significant impact on the lives of vulnerable individuals in society. All of this played a part in crowning Clayton Utz our Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year.
WWL had the privilege of speaking with one of the firm’s pro bono partners, David Hillard, about the practice’s focus and ethos, as well as the its pro bono culture and the successes it has had.
When asked what the firm’s focus is in terms of pro bono work, Hillard began by explaining that it has “always been about access to justice in Australia, which is increasingly important given the huge access to justice gap created by legal aid cuts”. He stressed, “We don’t go out to look for huge appeal cases with significant impacts on the law; a typical matter we run is for those who fall through the legal cracks and can’t afford legal aid.” As a consequence, the lawyers deal with a broad range of matters that fall out of the typical remit of large commercial firms. For example, they have seen “a lot of cases of elder financial abuse and have saved a number of clients put into difficult positions by their own families”.
The firm has also taken on a significant number of trafficking cases, predominantly involving individuals being held in forms of domestic slavery throughout the country. In addition, this year it saw a large volume of work in the employment space, in cases that, as Hillard described, usually involve “immediate legal issues for those who lose their jobs, or low-paid workers who have wages owed to them” and need legal expertise to recover them, but lack the access to lawyers and knowledge of who to contact for help.
Hillard pointed out that the firm’s pro bono work is unusual for a corporate firm, in that “the majority of our clients are people and not-for-profit, and we are very proud of this”. He added: “It requires a certain mindset for corporate firms to act for lots of individuals like we do.”
The work for the vulnerable in Australian society is demonstrative of Clayton Utz’s ethos in terms of pro bono work. Describing this ethos, Hillard said, “We talk internally about the incredible power we have to change people’s lives for the better”, in particular by “maximising assistance to people who can’t get access to a lawyer”. This is becoming an increasingly important service in Australia’s legal system, as the past 20 years have seen consistent cuts to legal aid funding in the face of rising demand for legal representation. The 1,300 cases taken on in 2018 amount to “a drop in the bucket in terms of Australia’s demand”, and Hillard was keen to highlight that pro bono work should “not been as a solution to access to justice problems”.
Indeed, the firm is looking to get to the root of the problem. It contributes to organisations that tackle the structural problem of access to justice in Australia, rather than simply helping those who already lack access. For instance, it is a founding partner of the Australian Legal Sector Alliance (AusLSA), which aims to promote sustainability commitments in the legal sector; this includes community support in the form of providing core services and resources to key stakeholders.
One of the key metrics looked at in WWL’s Pro Bono Survey is the level of engagement within the firm and its culture regarding pro bono work. In these respects, Clayton Utz really stood out in a very competitive set of submissions. The firm has recorded engagement levels of over 70 per cent for associates, senior associates and partners during the past year. On the impressive engagement rate, Hillard had this to say: “We achieve the volume of work we do precisely because everyone takes part. Pro bono is not just some shiny thing you can opt to do here. Every lawyer is expected to engage, and it is genuinely celebrated as part of who we are.” Indeed, in an internal survey conducted by the firm, 38.5 per cent of lawyers said the pro bono practice was a strong reason they had joined the firm in the first place and continued to work there.
Hillard identified a tangible sense of pride in the firm’s good work, with lawyers finding that “to make a really significant difference to people’s lives is really rewarding”. Meanwhile is clear that, for Hillard, the integral nature of pro bono work to the firm’s identity is also one of the reasons for its success as an organisation. When speaking to us, he was adamant that “a strong commitment to pro-bono builds a better law firm”, and that Clayton Utz “has better lawyers because of the pro bono work; it challenges lawyers in different ways and they are more engaged in the firm because of it”. Directly linking the strength of the pro bono practice to the performance of the firm globally, Hillard said: “We are a better and stronger firm with pro bono as an essential part of the organisation.”
In the coming years, Hillard told us that Clayton Utz will continue its commitment to representing low-income and disadvantaged individuals that lack access to justice in Australia, as well as continuing its efforts as a founding member of AusLSA. From the submissions collected by WWL this year, there appear to be few firms that can match the strength of Clayton Utz’s pro bono culture and levels of firm engagement, and Hillard hopes that Clayton Utz can provide a model for future practices on how best to incorporate this work it into a commercial structure in a way that benefits the firm commercially as well as culturally. WWL shares this hope, given the quality and impact of the firm’s work in Australia, and looks forward to seeing the results in our future surveys.