Every year, large commercial firms contribute an immense amount of what these days is dubbed ‘corporate social responsibility’ work. Most highlight it prominently on their websites, and it covers a multitude of activities, from old-fashioned pro bono work to matters beyond the legal profession, such as reading with schoolchildren. ‘Glamour’ projects like death row cases rub up alongside the staples of charity bike rides and bake sales.

Sitting among this jumble of activity is the work firms to help plug the justice gap here in the UK. Central to this effort are the lawyers – across the City and the country – who trek off to legal advice clinics in their spare moments to provide free help to those who can’t afford it.

Those efforts should never be denigrated. But hard questions still need to be asked. Could firms do more? Should they do more? Is propping up a crumbling system helping the government to ignore the problem?

Can firms work smarter? Harrow Law Centre, which we visited in the summer when researching yesterday’s long read, lacks volunteers because it is not on the doorstep of a major law firm. And Harrow is only a dozen or so miles from the City; there are many more clinics out in the legal aid deserts of the English and Welsh shires facing the same problem. Surely commercial firms have the opportunity to donate not just bodies at a clinic, but the technological sophistication originally honed for their paying clients, to address some of these issues.

With that in mind, we talked to managing partners and pro bono leaders at some of the UK’s largest firms to hear their thoughts.

How much should reasonably be expected of City firms when it comes to plugging the justice gap? Are law firms doing enough?

Susan Bright

Susan Bright, Hogan Lovells regional managing partner for UK and Africa: As successive Attorneys General have said, pro bono can only ever supplement, not be a substitute for, a comprehensive legal aid system. The pro bono practices of many law firms are deep and wide-ranging but cannot and should not replace civil legal aid provision. Given the significant cuts to civil legal aid and local authority funding, it is impossible to meet the legal need in the specialist areas required.

In 2017, we conducted a survey of MP surgeries in London, reviewing over 300 constituency interviews. The conclusion was that MP surgeries are fast becoming the ‘A&E of legal services’ because people are unable to find help in the specialist areas they need: housing, benefits and immigration. They are turning to MPs for help.

There is widespread professional commitment by individual lawyers, and many law firms, to pro bono; more needs to do be done to institutionalise that commitment within law firms to facilitate the willingness of individual lawyers to get involved.

What do you work on, and who do you work with, when it comes to access to justice projects in the UK? Have you seen a change in how the organisations you work with operate? Is there increased demand for your help?

Sally Davies Mayer Brown
Sally Davies

Sally Davies, London managing partner, Mayer Brown: Our pro bono practice is intentionally diverse. We give advice to individuals, charities, prisoners and social entrepreneurs across all areas of our practice, and in social welfare law and prison law. Our access to justice projects are centred on our volunteer work at advice clinics.

We also provide training to students delivering Streetlaw sessions. The organisations that we collaborate with deliver high-quality advice, via clinics and other services, with very limited budgets.

There is a constant demand. We try to match legal skills to appropriate projects. We haven’t seen a particular change in the needs of the organisations that we work with, as they operate tried and tested services in response to demand.

Yasmin Waljee, international pro bono director, Hogan LovellsAbsolutely we have seen the strain: where once the access to justice providers would have had time to meet, consider and build pro bono programmes with us, now they simply cannot. They are over-burdened dealing with front-line need and trying to fund-raise to keep going. We have seen case workers dealing with welfare benefits in one extraordinary access to justice provider reduce from 35 in 2010 to one today. With the introduction of Universal Credit and the inevitable issues that will bring, it will be impossible to cope.

Tamara Box, EME managing partner, Reed Smith: Despite difficult circumstances, the organisations that we partner with are doing what they can in providing expert training and supervision. This is critical given that the less support they receive, the fewer resources they can commit towards training City lawyers, which in turn limits the amount of pro bono that could effectively be done as you need to have organisations that are properly funded to support this. 

Indeed, we have witnessed a significant increase in the demand for help, but pro bono efforts by City law firms cannot meet this demand on their own.

Jason Butwick, London management committee, Dechert: We strive to find projects that make a genuine difference in our communities, and match the interests and skill sets of our lawyers. There has been an increase in demand for our help over recent years and demand for help still goes unmet despite the number of firms now providing material amounts of pro bono assistance. We do increasing work with referral bodies such as Law Works, A4ID, Advocates for International Development and other referral organisations to identify matters where we can assist. A good recent example is our advocacy work with the Legal Advice Centre, University House, helping residents of Tower Hamlets who are unable to work because of mental and physical disabilities, long term illness or mental health issues, to secure the benefits to which they are entitled.

Sarah Gregory, diversity and inclusion partner, Baker McKenzie: While it is important for law firms to ensure they are providing access to justice through their pro bono practices, pro bono is no substitute for a fully functioning legal aid system. The current legal aid cuts have left vulnerable individuals without legal representation, and many smaller firms without the means of providing legal advice, a gap too vast for pro bono to fill alone.

The trend in City law firms’ commitment to access to justice is encouraging, with most firms now recognising the importance of hiring full time lawyers to manage their pro bono practices, in order to ensure that their pro bono work is both strategic and impactful.

It is also important to realise that there is a need outside of the City, with advice deserts existing across the country, and with the rise of technology, firms should be thinking about how they can help individuals across the UK, not just those on their doorstep.

Firms do provide lots of hands-on help at law clinics and the like but is there something they can do apart from simply throwing bodies at the problem? 

Sarah Gregory: Historically generalist legal advice clinics were an excellent way of triaging clients to legal aid, but with the recent cuts, their utility has become more limited. The involvement of law firms in secondary specialisation work is in my view the most effective way of assisting those affected by our current access to justice crisis.

While City lawyers generally do not have the expertise to assist with the issues faced by those who cannot access legal advice, with need often falling in areas of law such as housing, welfare benefits and immigration, they have a willingness to help.

Partnering law firms with charities who are experts in these areas of need is the most effective way of ‘unlocking’ pro bono capacity. Where charity experts can work with City lawyers, this type of collaboration can be the best way of marrying the law firm’s capacity to assist with the charities’ expertise. With appropriate training and supervision, City lawyers can quickly upskill in a new area of law and be in a position to help those in need.

Sally Davies: Sally Davies: I think we have always to be flexible in our approach to pro bono to ensure that we match what we can provide to the existing demand. Technology is increasingly being used in the area of pro bono, for example Skype clinics, which have been very successful. We are looking at this. Clinics typically operate with law students attending the legal advice clinic to ensure that the Skype works, meet with the client and reassure them throughout the process. Some of the clients who attend legal advice clinics are vulnerable, so a lot of consideration is given to the appropriate use of Skype as a delivery channel in each instance. Technology is part of our lives like never before and I would expect it to feature more widely in our pro bono work in the future.

Tamara Box
Tamara Box

Tamara Box: There is certainly a place for the application of tech in pro bono matters. But tech can’t be a replacement for lawyers. There is good work taking place within our firm exploring how tech we develop on the fee-earning side of our business can be used to also support our pro bono clients and the work they do. However, before a tech solution is rolled out, it must be client-focused, meaning that it must be accessible for vulnerable clients and it needs to be supported by legal aid-funded lawyers who are adept at navigating these new tech platforms.

Yasmin Waljee: One way to increase capacity would be to ensure that local or central government properly funded the independent and law centre advice community which works in partnership with law firms to provide pro bono advice.

Additionally, making sure that individuals have early access to a qualified lawyer, experienced in the relevant field of law is the most effective way to resolve potential disputes before they escalate.

Getting law firms – and especially UK law firms – to report their pro bono statistics has proved a challenge for organisations that have tried, such as Thomson Reuters. Do you think firms should be required to publish certain pro bono figures? Why?

Susan Bright: The key is for pro bono to have an impact. Simply measuring hours spent without understanding what those hours are achieving is misconceived. A requirement to report pro bono hours is one we would need to consider carefully.

Alongside hours committed to pro bono, I think it is important to understand the views of pro bono clients and third-party partners, how pro bono is institutionalised within a law firm, what specialisms are offered, and so forth.

Sally Davies: Reporting pro bono statistics in the UK has been a challenge. It is an intensive process that needs to be resourced and managed but I believe firms should publish their figures. The Trustlaw Index has done great work in this area. It provides law firms with insightful benchmarking information, both in the UK and globally. GivX is another excellent benchmarking tool. It captures the broader community investment that companies make and it will be interesting to see how it develops as more businesses take part.

Tamara Box: As a firm, we are happy to report our stats, and indeed we do report our stats in the annual Responsible Business Report that we publish, to TrustLaw (Thomson Reuters) and also the UK Collaborative Plan for pro bono. That said, we are not of the opinion that reporting should be compulsory.

Jason Butwick: While we publish our pro bono figures to help demonstrate our commitment to supporting our communities, we don’t think it should be mandatory to do so not least because numbers don’t tell the entire story of a firm’s commitment to pro bono work: it’s about impact and the difference made. This is why we have recently published a pro bono report which tells the story behind the numbers, and gives a truer picture of what we have contributed.

Are you hopeful about the UK justice system and the public’s ability to access justice in the future? How do you think pro bono in this space will develop in the coming years?

Sally Davies: There is no doubt that pro bono work has been increasing over the years but you have to remain hopeful about the UK justice system. Whatever the future holds, law firms will continue to play an important role through their collaborations and  partnerships with organisations delivering services at the point of need.  What is also reassuring is that law firms work collaboratively on these projects, which is great for sharing knowledge/opportunities and experience and widen access to justice.

Yasmin Waljee
Yasmin Waljee

Tamara Box: We are worried about the impact of cuts to the funding of the court system and to legal aid. Hundreds of thousands of individuals no longer have access to the vital legal advice they would have got previously. We are concerned about access to justice.

Jason Butwick: Hopefully firms across the country will both continue to expand the amount of time their lawyers commit to pro bono and also pay close attention to identifying where most severe need can be met most effectively. Access to justice and the funding of the legal aid system looks set to remain an area which attracts considerable political focus and debate.

Yasmin Waljee: I am concerned about access to justice in the UK. Technological developments may help to some extent, but everyone will have to be more self-reliant to access justice going forward. Many will lose out and those are often the ones most in need. The intermediary charities are struggling and having to find ways to spread themselves even more thinly.

Susan Bright: We expect to see pro bono continue to grow and be institutionalised, delivering real impact through collaboration and partnerships both with the independent advice sector and with our clients.

Access to justice: A little more talk, please, from the City. Your silence is starting to be noticed