Getting the profession behind the pro bono cause

The UK's first conference devoted to pro bono work will be held next month. Only stigma and hang ups have delayed it this far, writes John Malpas

ENGLAND'S most senior full-time judge is not regarded as someone who indulges in hyperbole.

So when he describes an event as “one of the most encouraging developments in our legal life for many years”, you would expect the profession to sit up and take note.

It will have its chance to do exactly that on 6 June – when the newly formed Solicitors' Pro Bono Group (SPBG), holds its first conference.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, is the keynote speaker for the event, which is sponsored by The Lawyer.

It is hard to believe, but the SPBG claims that the conference is the first event of its kind in the UK to be devoted exclusively to pro bono work.

A US lawyer would find that fact incredible. There, dozens of firms have pro bono officers, whose job it is to co-ordinate and promote the pro bono work being carried out by its fee earners.

And they have been actively encouraged by the American Bar Association (ABA), which has its own pro bono centre and has long since passed a professional conduct rule, recommending that attorneys do at least 50 hours of pro bono work each year. Contrast this with England and Wales, where a deafening silence has emanated from our own Law Society.

Although the SPBG is at pains to stress the help it has received from the Law Society and will not countenance any criticism of it, its very existence is a testament to the society's own chronic failure to address the issue.

The SPBG was the brainchild of leading charities lawyer Andrew Phillips. In October 1996 he published a letter in The Lawyer, calling on solicitors to attend an “exploratory meeting” to discuss “what, if anything, should be done to expand or co-ordinate pro bono work in the profession”.

Phillips had sat on a Law Society working party two years before to look at the pro bono issue. Like many Law Society working parties it sank without trace.

Eventually he lost patience with the society and decided to act on his own.

The SPBG emerged from that first meeting, after a group of City and large commercial firms agreed to fund it for its first two years. After that, the SPBG will have to rely on the generosity of the profession as a whole.

It will be an uphill task, for the profession has a remarkable hang up about pro bono work – despite the fact that most lawyers, including many in the high street, where times are hard, undertake pro bono work.

For Lord Bingham, pro bono work vindicates “in the most practical way possible [the profession's] public commitment to serve the interests of all sorts and conditions of people”.

But Peta Sweet, the SPBG's director, is at pains to stress that pro bono work helps firms in a practical way as well.

“Anyone involved with and committed to pro bono will tell you that it makes for lawyers who have a broader vision,” she says.

Lawyers and law firms themselves, however, are often reluctant to talk about the pro bono work they are doing.

The historic argument against the concept – that it will only give the Government an excuse to cut back on legal aid – is laughable given the Government's historic willingness to cut back on legal aid whatever lawyers say or do.

More understandably, many firms are reluctant to talk about who they are helping, for fear of offending the clients who are having to pay the full amount.

And, of course, firms are worried about being accused of boasting about what they do.

The Lawyer understands that since Lovell White Durrant became the first City firm to appoint a full time pro bono officer, Yasmin Waljee, eight months ago, the number of hours of pro bono work being undertaken by staff at the firm has shot up five fold to 5,000. Lovells, however, has refused to comment.

It is a great shame that the firm feels unwilling to talk freely about what it is doing, but it is fully understandable.

Recently The Lawyer received a sniffy letter from a City law firm, in response to an article about Lovells. The instigation for the article was our own, and not Lovells'. The general tone of the letter was how dare Lovells boast about its pro bono unit, when we've had one for years.

It was only when the author realised that the firm was doing some “sterling work”, having conducted his own enquiries, that he withdrew the letter.

It is against these kinds of attitudes that the SPBG is fighting. Waljee will be at the conference where, hopefully, she will feel able to speak freely about the pro bono unit she is running.

Also there will be Marlene Winfield, head of legal services policy at the National Consumer Council. She will explain how lawyers doing pro bono work can contribute to a community legal service.

And there will be a host of other legal luminaries at the conference. Let us hope the profession will shed itself of its historic hang ups about pro bono work and give this conference the support it deserves.

Pro Bono – Setting the Agenda is at The New Connaught Rooms, Great Queen Street, on 6 June. For more details ring: 0171 722 9731.