There is an Asian old age pensioner in Bethnal Green who speaks limited English and is being plagued by demands from credit agencies for money he claims never to have spent.
He wears traditional Islamic dress, but the credit agencies are threatening to send the bailiffs round for money owed on purchases from clothes shops such as Austin Reed, which he says he has never visited. This man may have had his identity stolen.
This is the case being put forward by lawyers from the London office of US firm Steptoe & Johnson, working with him and others at a pro bono legal advice clinic set up by the firm in Bethnal Green. The clinic, which Steptoes’ 25-lawyer London office created last year in partnership with the St Hilda’s East Community Centre, is handling dozens of similar cases in the area.
Steptoes began the project last June after London pro bono charity the Solicitors Pro Bono Group put St Hilda’s in touch with the firm.
Three associates from the office got the clinic started and it is now overseen by London pro bono partner Christopher Gibson. The firm sends six lawyers to the clinic every week to give legal advice on debt, housing and benefits.
While many of Steptoes’ clients at St Hilda’s may be eligible for legal aid, high street solicitors often cannot get full government funding to see a civil case through to a satisfactory conclusion.
As for the pensioner, the credit agencies now have Gibson, who has power of attorney over the man’s financial affairs, to deal with.
Steptoes’ small but well-formed pro bono scheme should provide inspiration to firms outside the top 50. While many fear that it is not worth starting a firmwide pro bono scheme without the resources to provide a variety of work for staff, Steptoes proves that lawyers will commit to pro bono through one ongoing project.
Steptoe’s 25-lawyer London office is too small to provide the breadth and depth of larger City firms’ pro bono activities, which is why the firm concentrates most of its resources on St Hilda’s.
London pro bono partner Christopher Gibson estimates that his lawyers have spent nearly 1,000 hours working for St Hilda’s in the past 12 months, a per capita annual hourly rate to rival many larger firms.
Steptoe also provides pro bono services beyond the St Hilda’s clinic on an ad hoc basis. The firm does free legal work for the charity Excellent Development, which raises funds to regenerate degraded environments and develop income generation opportunities for families in Africa through tree planting. It also advises the respite care charity Brent Triangle which provides breaks for carers.
Like many of the US firms in London, Steptoe’s City office’s strong commitment to pro bono builds on its US parent’s long history of doing such work. Steptoe was one of the first firms in the US to have a pro bono programme run by a fully-qualified attorney, and in 2002 it worked on more than 300 pro bono cases in the US.