Pro bono: what it means to you

Only one in three of the UK's top 100 law firms responded to The Lawyer's second comprehensive pro bono survey, but at least this is more than last year. Dearbail Jordan reports on the good, the bad and the indifferent.

Apathy is the greatest enemy of progress – a point that is amply illustrated by the legal profession's sloth-like attitude to pro bono work.

Last year The Lawyer carried out its first comprehensive pro bono survey with disappointing results.

Out of 120 UK firms, only 22 replied and of those, many provided scant information about the amount of pro bono work they undertook.

This year, there is a slight improvement – 31 firms out of the top 100 firms in the UK (according to The Lawyer 100 Survey) have responded.

One of the most positive findings of the survey is that individual solicitors remain committed to providing free or reduced-rate advice to individuals who are in need.

This ranges from acting for people on death row in Trinidad, Tobago or Jamaica, to the more creative end of the scale, for example The European Commission of Looted Art, which has benefited from pro bono advice provided by Mischon de Reya.

But the results also reveal that there is still a lack of real understanding of the importance of pro bono work.

Commenting on the results, Peta Sweet, consultant on pro bono and related issues and former director of the Solicitors' Pro Bono Group (SPBG), says: “It's all still disappointing, it just seems a bit meaningless.

“There still seems to be a gap between the rhetoric and the reality.”

Certainly during Sweet's tenure at the SPBG, she spoke of the importance of garnering the support of the top 100 firms to change the culture of pro bono in the UK.

However, the number of surveys returned – firms were given nearly four weeks to answer just eight questions on pro bono activity – do not paint an encouraging picture.

Sue Bucknall, director at the SPBG, says: “It's not very good is it? I think it would have helped if there had been a better reply rate.”

One of the most worrying results is that some firms fail to understand the true meaning of the term pro bono as it relates to the legal profession.

For the record, translated from the Latin, pro bono means “for the good”.

In terms of the legal profession, Yasmin Waljee, pro bono co-ordinator at Lovells, defines it as: “To provide legal advice and assistance for people who cannot afford it or cannot get legal aid assistance for it.”

While this might seem like teaching the proverbial grandmother to suck eggs, certain firms have difficulty separating pro bono work from charity work, where any member of a firm, be they lawyers or administrative staff, can do a good deed.

Lois Yeaman, community affairs officer at Freshfields, argues that the charitable works the firm undertakes should really be regarded as pro bono.

She stresses: “We are all involved in a two-pronged programme that is not just pro bono work. Things have moved away from that.”

While David Ansbro, managing partner at Eversheds, finds it difficult to separate pro bono work and charitable work from the astronomical 45,000 hours the firm clocked up in 1999.

He says: “It is more than purely legal work, it includes voluntary work. Some of our lawyers are on the boards for non profit making corporations.”

But surely the importance of lawyers participating in pro bono work is that they have a valuable skill of use to those less fortunate.

Encouragingly, this year more firms are willing to unveil how many hours of pro bono work they undertook in 1999.

However, a point which firms became more prickly about was whether there was an adequate system in place to monitor the amount of time spent on pro bono.

Samil Gadhia, a litigation partner at Stephenson Harwood, says: “The fact that we do not monitor it in a strategic way is not important. We spend a significant amount of time on pro bono work.”

Although Lovells has a system in place which monitors hours spent on free advice, Waljee says: “It is technically difficult to record the amount of hours. They have to be written off because they become work in progress which is taxed.”

This is a common response, even from firms with an adequate system in place.

However, many firms state that they are committed to treating pro bono clients in the same way they treat their normal fee-paying clients.

But investing in a system shows that firms are taking the provision of pro bono seriously.

Also, by appointing a pro bono co-ordinator, a committee or producing a written statement shows that the management within firms are considering pro bono work as a worthy adjunct to their normal business.

Unsurprisingly, the larger City firms eclipse middle-tier firms in terms of the amount of resources available.

The highest-grossing firms are able to provide an individual or committee and a system to aid the progression of pro bono in the firm.

However, many of the regional firms which returned the survey felt they were suffering through lack of resources and by not having a body like the SPBG locally to provide support.

Julia Fox, partner in the private client and charities department at Wragge & Co, says: “On strictly pro bono work we are not as good as we could be.”

But Fox is keen for the firm to implement a system that would allow the monitoring of pro bono work and more importantly, to tap into a network like the SPBG which would give access to those that need it.

She says: “[City firms] have the chances that we don't have. We have a Citizens Advice Bureau, but I am still trying to contact the woman there.”

Waljee says: “I got called by Pinsent Curtis to show them how we do [pro bono work], it is a word of mouth thing. The local law societies are under resourced but it would be good if they could help.”

However, one source at a regional firm says: “I don't think that being a regional firm is an adequate reason. If I want to do pro bono work then I will do it whether I have the system in place or not. Being a regional firm is not a good yardstick to compare it to.”

Sweet says that lawyers are beginning to see the light about the advantages that pro bono can bring to the firm as well as others.

She says: “Culturally they are beginning to get the argument but they are not putting it into practice.”

Although she adds: “It seems as though they are starting to understand the business and professional argument, that there is a relationship between the two.”

Reasons given for firms taking part vary from the predictable but worthy “it gives something back to the community”, to aiding firms with recruitment, boosting morale and building on lawyers' skills.

However, some firms are more forthright in their answers. Manchester firm Pannone & Partners says one of the benefits it derives from taking part in pro bono work is an improvement in image.

The firm adds: “Possibly that it leads to paid work, although that is not the reason why it is done.”

Jan Ebdon, director of marketing at Pannones, says: “It is not the purpose but one of the benefits of doing this work. At least we have been honest about it.”

Indeed some clients now demand that firms provide evidence of pro bono activity.

BAe Systems (formerly British Aerospace) is a prime example.

In July 1998, it became the first in-house legal team to join the SPBG. And in March last year, the company stated unequivocally that firms must show they offer a pro bono provision if they want to continue being instructed by the FTSE 100 company.

Zurich Financial Services followed suit in October, stating that its chosen firms must give free advice to those in need.

The influence of these moves has been far reaching.

Firms that replied to the survey, including Osborne Clarke, Norton Rose, Richards Butler and Lovells, admit that their clients were now demanding a commitment to pro bono.

Yeaman says Freshfields was the first to sign up to the pro bono initiative with BAe. However, she adds that the firm's main priority is to service its fee-paying clients, and if those that pay the profits demand an ethical commitment, then firms are naturally going to jump through hoops to fulfil it – or risk losing the work.

Whatever the motivation, it is a step in the right direction.

One thing sadly lacking, however, is that most firms do not have a concrete requirement that trainees must engage in pro bono work.

DLA stands out by stating that trainees are informed at their induction that they must provide 3 per cent of their time annually to pro bono work.

However, the majority of firms resort to the adage that although pro bono work is not compulsory, it is “actively encouraged”.

Ashurst Morris Crisp states that at a trainee's induction, they are given a seminar and details of opportunities for pro bono work.

Sweet says: “It is a good way of implementing it. If trainees were required to do it that would be a big step.”

However, one source seems mystified as to why trainees should be asked to carry out pro bono work.

“Well, it is not required as part of the contract but it is not discouraged. If it comes their way and they are happy to get involved, then so be it.”

Overall, the survey was a mixed bag. Some firms are trying to make good on their promises to implement systems to monitor pro bono work.

But others still treat pro bono the same way that a philanthropist treats his or her charitable work – that is they do not want to talk about it.

Furthermore, if more firms could have found the time to at least fill in the survey, it would have been a positive sign instead of proffering excuses – one spokesman at a top-10 firm says: “It must be in someone's in-tray and because it was not more critical, they never got round to it.”

But Sweet says: “People do not have any excuses. The SPBG has been going for three years, they have the resources.

“I don't know what they have got to be so scared about.”