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When BAE Systems closed its Hatfield aircraft manufacturing plant in 1993, hundreds of workers lost their jobs. Aware of the impact of the move on the local community, a small team of in-house lawyers embarked on a pro bono scheme designed to rebuild their relationship with the local community.
Linklaters introduced BAE to Hatfield's Council for Voluntary Services (CVS), an umbrella organisation for local charities. Among its projects, the CVS operates a furniture recycling scheme. Staffed by volunteers, it offers the long-term unemployed and those with learning difficulties a foothold into the job market, while providing cheap furniture for the local community.
However, a lack of funding was threatening the programme with closure.
Having obtained exemptions from Law Society rules that prohibit in-house lawyers from acting for external clients, the BAE team worked with the CVS to draft a business plan, locate new premises, obtain more than £60,000 of interim funding and negotiate leases on temporary premises. The aircraft company also provided office space for meetings and donated furniture.
Five years after BAE became involved the CVS has won £278,000 of Lotto funding and is set to move to permanent premises.
The result, says Mike Scrimgeour, head of legal at the Hatfield office, has been "great publicity and a revival in reputation for BAE". Indeed, some of the volunteers at the furniture recycling project are former employees of BAE's Hatfield plant.
The project has also had benefits for more junior lawyers, who now have access to clients they would otherwise rarely meet.
BAE's lawyers are located across the UK, but the tiny Hatfield office, consisting of four lawyers and a trainee, is the pro bono hub. The inspiration has come from the lawyers and much of the work has been done in their own time.
Scrimgeour says limited resources are the main reason for an absence of pro bono programmes at in-house teams. This means that large, complex projects are out of reach for BAE, but to address this it partners with law firms (Link-laters on the CVS furniture project and Clifford Chance on another initiative) to provide a full legal service.
The programme has had major benefits for junior lawyers, since clients that lease aircraft are vastly different to the sorts of clients they encounter through the CVS. "It gives them a more rounded legal experience," says Scrimgeour.
The lawyers' involvement in the furniture recycling project is nearing the end of its natural life, so the BAE team will again approach the CVS to offer their services to another local charity.
The Lawyer verdict
Transactional lawyers often bemoan the limited pro bono options available to them. But for aircraft leasing experts, it is slim pickings indeed. With the help of an introduction from Linklaters, BAE's in-house team in Hatfield has formed a lasting partnership with a local community group. Given its size, its niche areas of expertise and its limited resources, this is a sensible and worthwhile pro bono initiative.