Norton Rose's employment department is blazing a trail for employment representation charity the Free Representation Unit (FRU).
The eight-strong Norton Rose team, which includes partners Paul Griffin and Pete Talibart, has agreed to a formal partnership with the FRU that will see each lawyer taking on a case apiece for the unit this year.
The FRU was founded in 1972 and provides case support and advocacy for claimants in employment tribunal cases and social security disputes who cannot otherwise fund themselves. Cases are referred to the FRU from Citizens Advice Bureaux and Law Centres across the UK, and volunteers from a variety of backgrounds then represent the claimants.
The new scheme was proposed by Norton Rose's Griffin and Talibart helped him to set it up. In its first year, the team expects to provide representation in four FRU cases, with a senior and junior lawyer working together on each case.
"I came upon the idea for two reasons," said Griffin. "It's a good opportunity for junior lawyers to get advocacy experience, and it's for a good cause."
Griffin explained that it can often be quite difficult for more junior employment lawyers in larger City firms to gain experience as advocates in front of a tribunal, and that the agreement between Norton Rose and the FRU will give them that opportunity. The Norton Rose lawyers will be doing all the work on each case, which they select themselves.
"There's something in it for them and it's doing something for the FRU," Griffin added.
FRU chair Abigail Schaeffer said around 1,400 cases are referred to the unit each year. Because the number of cases far outweighs the number of volunteers that the FRU has available, last year only 794 claimants were represented.
"We encourage firms to support the FRU, but in practice difficulties can get in the way," Schaeffer admitted.
According to Schaeffer, such difficulties include the pressure on lawyers to bill as many hours as possible, which takes away from time that could be spent working pro bono. She said the Norton Rose agreement is the first time that a whole department has committed itself to working with the FRU, and the partners' involvement is particularly valuable.
"The most unusual thing about Norton Rose is the high level of support and the commitment from the entire department," Schaeffer said. "It shows that firms can support pro bono work proactively and not just pay lip service."
She added: "It's incredibly positive both for the FRU and for Norton Rose - it's fantastic, it's really great."
Griffin said that, at the end of the first year of the partnership, Norton Rose will review the amount of time spent on FRU cases to see if more work can be done.