Pro bono not top priority, says Law Soc president

MICHAEL Mathews says the Law Society supports pro bono initiatives. So why has the Law Society recently turned down two applications for grants to set up pro bono schemes?
Leeds Law Society recently applied for a u4,500 grant to set up a free advice centre in the city. The Law Society offered a mere u650 and the scheme is now in jeopardy.
Similarly, the City of London Law Society was refused a grant to set up a clearing scheme for pro bono referrals, and is now seeking alternative funding.
Mathews says it is all a matter of priorities and that the applications were in competition with other schemes for a limited amount of money: “I don't think it necessarily gives a negative message if you put it in the right context.
“We would certainly never say pro bono was more important than anything else. It's important, but other things are important too.”
He points out that the Law Society is funding the Solicitors Pro Bono Group (SPBG). But compared with law societies around the world, Chancery Lane's commitment looks distinctly half-hearted.
Since 1983, the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct have made pro bono an ethical requirement, by asking lawyers to undertake at least 50 hours of pro bono work a year, although the target is aspirational rather than mandatory.
Five years ago, the ABA launched a Pro Bono Challenge to ask the 500 largest firms to direct 3 to 5 per cent of their annual billable hours to pro bono. In the US, each state Bar funds at least one pro bono programme.
The Law Society of New South Wales recently adopted a formal policy setting firms a voluntary annual minimum target for pro bono work of 10 hours per solicitor or 1 per cent of annual billings. It also funds a state pro bono referral scheme.
Peta Sweet, director of the SPBG, wants Chancery Lane to take a similar lead: “We have been lobbying the Law Society to get it to develop an aspirational rule that recommends a certain level of pro bono commitment and puts it on record as saying this is an obligation that the profession has.”
The SPBG claims to have government support for such a move.
Mathews is resistant to change: “The effect might be counter-productive.
“Solicitors don't like to be told what to do. If we start putting targets out there, maybe some will treat it as a maximum rather than a minimum.
“If we push too hard towards compulsion or quasi-compulsion, there's the risk that people will advise on subjects they have no expertise in, which is worse than doing nothing.”
So, nothing it is then.