The 2020 Who’s Who Legal Pro Bono Firm of the Year is presented to Clayton Utz for the second year in succession in recognition of its continued excellence in the field. It becomes only the second firm to win the award in back-to-back years.
Clayton Utz’s pro bono practice is now in its 24th year. In 2019, it conducted 42,871 hours of pro bono work, comprising 1,158 individual matters. The focus has remained on assisting low-income and vulnerable individuals in Australia who cannot obtain legal aid. It also increased and diversified its standout work with NGOs, acting for over 281 in 2019 compared to 170 the previous year. 2020’s numbers will be even larger.
The firm once again distinguished itself thanks to its devoted pro bono culture, characterised by having two dedicated partners leading its pro bono group and impressively high engagement figures throughout all levels of the firm. The way in which pro bono work is made intrinsic to the firm’s working practice really stood out, as did the impact of its work on behalf of various Australian communities. All of these factors played a part in crowning Clayton Utz our Pro Bono Firm of the Year.
Who’s Who Legal had the privilege of speaking with one of the firm’s pro bono partners, David Hillard, about the focus of the practice, how pro bono work improves the firm, and how other firms can follow the model they have built.
David Hillard explains that the firm remains committed to the representation of low income and vulnerable individuals who are denied access to justice due to inadequate civil legal aid funding in Australia. The matters they regularly see include domestic violence, employment issues, tenancy, human rights and elder financial abuse
Hillard states that “the amount of work increased last year and, thanks to the global pandemic, the level of unmet need in the community this year has increased dramatically”. As a result, he confirms that Clayton Utz “is now performing more pro bono work than ever: the last six months were the busiest six months of the practice in our history”. Last year alone, the firm helped prevent 85 people from becoming homeless, which Mr Hillard notes is “very satisfying in these times”. He notes that it has been inspiring to see “an increased willingness of lawyers from firms across Australia to do their part to respond to that need” and that it is “lucky that we have a collegiate response across Australia regarding pro bono work”.
Aside from their work with vulnerable and low-income individuals, Clayton Utz continues to spearhead the Health Justice Partnerships (HJP) movement in the jurisdiction, which aims to “embed legal help into healthcare settings, joining the dots between the legal and social problems that make or keep people unwell”. After Clayton Utz helped establish Australia’s first HJP, then set up and funded Health Justice Australia, 73 HJPs have been established across the country within eight years.
Looking to the future, the firm remains dedicated to continuing its work with low-income and vulnerable individuals, as well as putting a greater emphasis on “more environmental cases, as environmental concerns become more pressing in Australia”. It is expected that the pro bono practice will continue to grow as “the levels of unmet need continue to be high”.
Part of the decision to recognise Clayton Utz as winner of the Pro Bono Firm of the Year for a second time was the firm’s ingrained pro bono culture. Such a culture, in the experience of David Hillard, makes the firm better in a number of ways. For example, the types of cases that lawyers take on “stretch their problem-solving skills and give them a different perspective to apply to their usual cases”. They also learn “how to communicate clearly, present arguments and help clients understand their cases”, which makes pro bono work a key part of their development, particularly among more junior practitioners.
With the impact of covid-19 being felt across the globe, it seems more important than ever that law firms have a strong pro bono practice as people made more vulnerable though the loss of their homes, jobs and livelihoods. He imparts that, if anything, “the last eight months have demonstrated what an incredible set of special powers lawyers have to make a positive impact on vulnerable people’s lives”. It seems clear that law firms who ignore the importance and benefits of a strong pro bono practice miss an opportunity to strengthen their organisation in possibly fundamental ways.
Given the success of the firm’s pro bono practice, we asked what firms can do to strengthen their own offerings. Key to Clayton Utz’s approach and success is the engagement with pro bono work across the firm: “The work has to be normalised in the firm. We’ve always had a sense in our practice that it is not something that is an add on, it is an integral part of practice. It is real work, not a piece of window dressing.”
This is readily evident at Clayton Utz, where practitioners have a yearly target of pro bono hours, performance reviews factor them in and any pro bono work is counted towards billable hours. This integration across the entire firm is confirmed by the engagement rate, which is over 80 per cent at partner, associate and trainee levels.
Aside from a culture change surrounding pro bono work, Hillard advises that “at a very basic level, the work should be conducted under supervision of partners”, and that “if you are developing a practice it has to be based fundamentally on where the legal need is, not based on how it benefits the firm”. He concludes, “What is best for the client is the key to pro bono work.”
In a field replete with outstanding pro bono practices from across the globe, Clayton Utz once again distinguishes itself among the competition. The firm demonstrated unmatched levels of engagement, organisation and impact regarding its work with vulnerable and low-income individuals in the Australian market, as well as a fierce commitment to making legal help accessible in Australia. Clayton Utz offers others a prime example of how to do pro bono work, and the benefits of doing so at an individual and firm-wide level.