Pro bono work flourishes in spite of economic downturn

The importance of the contribution of students, trainees and lawyers to centres facing closure because of inadequate funding arrangements has been reported in this magazine before (The Lawyer, 25 May).

But involvement in these organisations is just a snippet of the wide-ranging and meaningful pro bono schemes that are going on behind the scenes at some of the UK’s largest law firms. What is surprising is that during the recession, far from having been sidelined in favour of bringing in commercial work, pro bono actually appears to have flourished.

Just look at some of the figures relating to the 2008-09 financial year. A 10 per cent increase in UK staff participating in pro bono activity at Berwin Leighton Paisner and a similar rise at Denton Wilde Sapte. A 23 per cent increase in the number of pro bono hours recorded at Linklaters in London and a 30 per cent rise globally. More than half the lawyers at Clifford Chance in London are now estimated to do pro bono activity of some kind, with an estimated eight per cent increase in the London office over the first five months of the 2009-10 financial year.

“I put the increase in pro bono activity at Clifford Chance down to its steady ongoing institutionalisation,” says Tom Dunn, a pro bono lawyer at the firm.

While he notes that the redundancy programme that took place at Clifford Chance earlier this year (4 February) did lead to the loss of some lawyers involved in particular programmes, Dunn points out that, “pro bono is increasingly thought of as part of being a lawyer at Clifford Chance”.

The magic circle firm has been involved in access to justice for years, known particularly for the advocacy work of its litigators on behalf of death row prisoners in the US. Recent moves to embed this in the firm’s DNA have included the creation of a global corporate responsibility (CR) committee chaired by senior partner Stuart Popham, the remit of which includes developing pro bono work, as well as incentives such as CR awards. This strategic approach is mirrored in the banking and finance-heavy firm’s choice to emphasise access to finance during this year’s National Pro Bono Week.

“We’re now focusing on engaging the finance practice – the challenge there is finding appropriate pro bono outlets for the department’s expertise,” comments Dunn. “They work with banks – we’re not in the business of providing pro bono to banks. Microfinance is an obvious area, but we also do budgeting skills, debt advice and financial education.”

This strategic slant is also taken by Linklaters. Pro bono partner Kathyrn Ludlow says: “Our general strategy is to look for pro bono opportunities that allow us to use our legal skills to assist the disadvantaged local [communities] to our offices under our themes of achievement, enterprise and access to justice, and to identify opportunities where we can use our cross-border, cross-practice capabilities on international projects addressing broader social and economic issues.”

An example of this is Project Liberia in which 190 lawyers across eight offices have been involved to date. Linklaters has assisted not-for-profit organisation Lawyers without Borders in supporting the rule of law in Liberia by producing an online digest of the country’s entire jurisprudence.

As with many pro bono projects, Project Liberia provided excellent opportunities for trainees to get access to clients and engage in teamwork, which, as trainee Ceri-Ann McGraa, says, “provided me with invaluable skills that I hope to be able to develop throughout my training contract”.

But as well as providing personal benefits, there is the opportunity for employees to make a really positive impact by leveraging off the fact that they work for some of the best names in the market.

Marie Berard, a senior associate at Clifford Chance and coordinator of the firm’s support to the National Autistic Society (NAS) underlines this.

“Since we started the NAS scheme in 2000 we’ve completed 110 cases – 90 per cent of which have been successful,” she says. “Having Clifford Chance behind you sometimes is enough to make the case go away.”