Land of the free

US lawyers want to transfer their pro bono activities to their London offices, but as Anna Bidwell reports, the challenge is in finding the right work

For US lawyers, pro bono is a basic professional value.

Stateside lawyers are typically introduced to pro bono during the course of their three-year law school education.

Many young attorneys spend the summer after their first year of law school volunteering with not-for-profit organisations; in their second and third years of law school still more students are involved with free legal clinics run by law schools.

During interviews with prospective employers, young lawyers often use a firm’s dedication to and emphasis on pro bono as a marker when evaluating competing job offers.

It is not surprising, then, that US law firms, both at home and abroad, have a strong commitment to pro bono.

Most US firms actively encourage their lawyers to become involved in their pro bono practices, as these projects often require close client contact. They also provide younger lawyers with the opportunity to become familiar with new areas of law.

However, as in many other areas of legal practice, and indeed life, glitches often arise in translation.

The push by US firms to develop stronger pro bono practices in the UK has in the past encountered several barriers. The main challenges are finding interesting assignments that non-English-qualified lawyers can handle and providing appropriate training and support to all lawyers handling pro bono cases.

When I started in the London office of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in early 2001, the push to further the firm’s pro bono practice was at an early stage. The UK office had been engaged in this work for several years, but there was no steady stream of interesting projects to meet the demand of all the lawyers who wanted to participate in this practice.

Approximately half the lawyers in the London office are UK-qualified and the rest are qualified in the US or in other European jurisdictions. In the spring of 2001, a committee of interested US and UK associates and partners began holding open forum discussion sessions to determine the type of pro bono work that would match the interests and best suit the skills of all the London lawyers, whatever country they qualified in.

Fortunately for us (and I believe this is becoming progressively more true in medium to large corporate law firms throughout London, whether UK or US), the concept of pro bono already had a strong footing in the culture of Cleary Gottlieb.

Also, when these discussions began, there was no noticeable difference in interest levels between UK and US lawyers. From the beginning of the push to further develop the London pro bono practice, meetings and discussions included all associates. Many of the non-US lawyers in the London office have obtained an LLM at a US law school, qualified for admission to the bar of the State of New York, or both.

Instead of being solely a means to drum up interest in pro bono, the discussions also focused on finding projects that all lawyers – whether UK-qualified or not – would be able to handle.

Part of the difficulty for US firms developing pro bono practices in the UK is that, in the majority of cases, the firms’ US lawyers are not qualified to practise in this country as solicitors. During the discussions, associates and partners agreed that the London pro bono practice should focus on corporate matters, as most of the lawyers in the UK are corporate specialists.

Once this decision was made, training sessions were run on basic UK corporate law as an introduction for the non-UK-qualified lawyers, and on UK charities law for all lawyers in the office. Meeting the training challenge was easy to resolve.

The more difficult issue was finding appropriate pro bono assignments to engage the imaginations of our corporate lawyers. Although it is relatively simple in the UK for lawyers to find contentious work to do on a pro bono basis (eg through a legal centre, the Citizens Advice Bureau or a bar pro bono unit), it is much more difficult to unearth pro bono projects on the corporate side.

In Cleary Gottlieb’s New York office, the pro bono coordinator Carrie Grimm receives requests for pro bono assistance from numerous organisations on a daily basis. These organisations provide a steady diet of corporate pro bono projects to lawyers in private practice. They include: Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts; the Lawyers Alliance for New York; Sanctuary for Families; the American Civil Liberties Union; the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights; the Association of the Bar of the City of New York; the Criminal Defense Immigration Project of the New York State Defenders’ Association (NYSDA); the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) Legal Defense and Education Fund; and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Many also run training sessions to tutor corporate lawyers in handling contentious matters outside their speciality areas, such as immigration/asylum and domestic violence cases.

A number of these organisations are decades old, well established and much publicised within the corporate legal community. They also have vast experience mobilising corporate lawyers from medium and large-sized firms to become involved in pro bono projects.

The process for finding equivalent opportunities in the London office at the beginning of 2001 involved much more legwork; in fact, there was no infrastructure in place to develop a continual pipeline of engaging corporate pro bono projects.

In an effort to increase the flow of incoming non-contentious pro bono referrals, in July 2001 lawyers in Cleary Gottlieb’s London office first met with Sue Bucknell, chief executive of the Solicitors Pro Bono Group (SPBG), to discuss the new initiative in which it is involved – the Law Works for Community Groups project (LWCG).

The LWCG links law firms in the UK with organisations needing free legal advice. Not only does it provide law firms with a steady flow of pro bono referrals, the group specifically targets organisations requiring transactional legal advice.

Its focus on providing referrals for transactional pro bono projects matched the needs of our office almost exactly and, as a result, the LWCG has become a primary source of cases in our London office.

This combination – increased infrastructure and a steady flow of engaging transactional projects – has allowed Cleary Gottlieb in London to develop successfully a more US-style pro bono practice. In addition, Nikhil Mehta, a partner in our London tax practice, is a solicitor-advocate qualified to handle contentious matters.

The concept and culture of pro bono are expanding; it is not just for US lawyers or law firms anymore. The challenges Cleary Gottlieb faced in establishing a steady pro bono practice in the London office were not due to a lack of interest, enthusiasm or commitment.

Our lawyers – US, UK or other Europeans – have been dedicated to solving the issues involved in moving our London pro bono practice forward. With the growth of groups such as the SPBG, more and more law firms will be able to match the skills of their corporate lawyers with the requirements of those in need of transaction legal services, creating a win-win situation for both lawyers and their pro bono clients.

Anna Bidwell is an associate at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton