UK trails the US in the practice of pro bono

Of course it could be argued that in a society without a legal aid system, there is more opportunity and need for free legal advice. It is true that access to lawyers in the US is even more difficult than the Government is trying to make it in the UK. But this does not explain the imbalance between the state of pro bono there and here.

Whereas US lawyers are steeped in the culture of pro bono from their university courses, through to their initial contact with firms, through to their rise up the hierarchy, here they are not.

In the UK pro bono is at best an add-on, and at worst an after thought. Many lawyers are doing fine work, often in their own time and under their volition. But on the whole, as our feature shows (page 16-19), they do it without their firms. Of course their firms do not discourage them, but they certainly do not support them. Firms lack structures and systems to enable effective pro bono work.

Put simply, people in the US take pro bono seriously and those in the UK do not. Over there it is institutionalised. Over here it is not.

This is not only bad news for those in need of legal advice but it is also bad news for those working desperately to raise the public profile and the public’s perception of lawyers.

The profession’s enemies paint firms and lawyers as self-centred and money-obsessed. The big firms are by necessity often distant from ordinary people’s lives. But as our special report shows (page 27-33), firms are realising the importance of building relationships with clients and with the wider public.

This week The Lawyer is presenting its first marketing awards in recognition of the fact that some firms are trying to build such relationships. What unites the entries is a desire to find something particular about their firm to raise its profile, its status and ultimately its business. A properly organised pro bono system could well be the unique selling proposition (USP) they are looking for.