Free ride

Irwin Mitchell’s Mike Napier is spreading the word on pro bono. But don’t take what he says as gospel. By Jon Robins

For those of you who might have spotted a brightly coloured, blue and yellow double-decker bus full of lawyers slap-bang in the middle of Lincoln’s Inn Fields last Monday morning (7 June), your eyes did not deceive you. It wasn’t Harry Potter’s Knight Bus (and anyway, that’s a purple triple-decker). It was actually there to announce the third National Pro Bono Week. The legal profession was about to “hit the road” (as the press officers put it) and generally encourage all would-be volunteers to “get on board” the bandwagon that is ‘pro bono publico’. The man at the wheel (metaphorically, not literally), as ever was Mike Napier, the former president of the Law Society and the Attorney-General’s pro bono envoy.

“Over the last three years, the movement has strengthened and now there’s a greater awareness that pro bono is mainstream and not something for the select few,” claims Napier.

So what is the bus all about?

It is a question he has clearly anticipated. It is, he replies, “an outward demonstration of the national contribution that the legal profession has made. Rather like the bus as it travels around the country, the evidence is that, within the profession, pro bono is really on the move.” The rumour that the specially customised bus was on loan from the Jesus Army is possibly mischievous. “We aren’t travelling around spreading the message in any evangelical kind of way,” he hastily adds.

The Lawyer caught up with Napier last Monday at a café opposite Trafalgar Square, which was the starting point of a week-long journey from Bournemouth to Newcastle, spreading the message of solicitors and their good works. According to a recent Law Society survey, more than half of all solicitors (56 per cent) have undertaken pro bono work at some stage in their career, and one-third in the last 12 months. There are now 1,400 barristers who volunteer through the Bar Pro Bono Unit.

On a blisteringly hot morning, Napier is enthusiastically geared up for a long day of timetabled events, interspersed with the odd interview for local radio stations, as well as heading up advice clinics being conducted on the top deck of the bus. It has been a couple of years since he acquired the rather grand title of envoy to the Attorney-General, and following his successful stint as Law Society president in 2000, he is now back at the helm of 750-fee-earner law firm Irwin Mitchell, where he has been since 1972. He provided some much-needed calm in the wake of the Robert Sayer presidency and the Kamlesh Bahl debacle at the Law Society. Prior to that, Napier was president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and also remains heavily involved in access to justice issues through his membership of the Civil Justice Council.

To rewind a couple of years, there was understandable cynicism at the Attorney-General’s patronage of the pro bono movement at a time when parts of the legal aid system were perceived to be dying on their feet. In fact, the pro bono credentials of Lord Goldsmith QC, like Napier’s, are pretty impressive. He set up a free advice centre in East London’s Bethnal Green in the 1970s and was a founding member of the Bar Pro Bono Unit. Napier has said that his commitment to pro bono is “part of his lifeblood”. He was first involved when he set up the Pitsmoor Citizens Advice Bureau
in a socially deprived part of Sheffield in 1974.

So how has pro bono changed since the Attorney-General’s involvement?

“There’s a far more recognisable framework for public activity now, and those firms that want to get involved can easily find their way to the Solicitors Pro Bono Group and barristers can find their way to the Bar Pro Bono Unit,” Napier replies. Last year, a website (www.ProBonouk.net) was launched to act as “the marketplace and the exchange forum” for all the organisations involved, including providers, receivers and members of the public. He also flags up the pro bono protocol, which is intended to act as a quality mark for firms carrying out pro bono work, and sets out the principles and best practice for such work. It also stresses that volunteer work should be to the same standard as fee-paying work. “The pro bono enthusiasts have all signed, including some of the major City firms,” Napier reports. “It’s evidence of the essentially voluntary nature of pro bono that is its strength. These people aren’t conscripted.”

How does Napier prevent pro bono week coming across as a rather smug exercise in back-slapping between professionals, though?

“Well, for a start I don’t think it is,” Napier maintains. He reckons that they are attempting to avoid “pro bono people simply talking to pro bono people”. He mentions a recent session at Nottingham Trent University, when a woman paid tribute to free legal advice clinics.
Asked what her group was, she replied: “Aptcoo.” The unwieldy acronym meant nothing to the assembled lawyers until she went on to explain that it stood for ‘A Place to Call Our Own’. “It provided respite care for families with disabled people,” Napier recalls. “It was a real lump in the throat moment.”

It is an irony that, although lawyers were driving a multicoloured double-decker up and down the land promoting the brand of ‘pro bono’ last week, the last thing they want is thousands of random members of the public wanting free legal advice. “Frankly, the socially excluded may never know what pro bono means,” he says. “But so long as the movement connects the lawyers willing to give their time for free with the voluntary sector, which is the catchment area for the socially excluded, that squares the circle.”

The success story of pro bono over recent years has largely concerned the engagement of the City in the initiative. Larger firms make much of the marketing potential of their glossy responsibility brochures. They help increasingly to attract corporate clients.

But does self-interest devalue the work that the lawyers undertake?

“It’s the work that counts, not the motive,” asserts the pro bono envoy. “I don’t give a damn whether someone in need of free legal help gets it from an assistant solicitor from a City firm or a legal aid lawyer who regards it as part of their daily work.”

Of course, it is the latter that does the most free legal work, even though more often than not it is out of necessity. In the last 12 months, almost two-thirds of legal aid solicitors spent over 30 hours on pro bono work. In comparison, only 34 per cent of private practice solicitors spent that much time on pro bono.

As ever, there is concern that pro bono advice clinics are letting the Government off the hook. “Certainly, we’re very concerned that politicians may see pro bono as a possible replacement for the gaps that are opening in the community legal service,” comments Richard Miller, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group. He also has worries about City lawyers who “perhaps don’t have the empathy and understanding” to be let loose upon vulnerable clients.

Miller has “a lot of sympathy” with the calls occasionally made by the likes of Geoffrey Bindman, senior partner of Bindman & Partners, for a fund to support access to justice, financed through a levy on the profits of the big-earning firms.

Napier believes the idea of a levy on the City is “well motivated, but misguided”. Pro bono is essentially a volunteer movement, he reckons. Napier’s mantra-like response to worries about the uneasy coexistence between legal aid and pro-bono is that it is “an adjunct to, not a replacement for”, legal aid.

But how meaningful is that when public funding of legal advice is in permanent retreat and, as the Law Society would put it, there is an increasing “legal aid desertification”, leaving tracts of the country without cover?

“It would be different if there were any evidence of pro bono eroding the money the Treasury commits to legal aid,” Napier says. “But there’s no evidence.”
Mike Napier
Irwin Mitchell