Clients put pressure on firms to undertake pro bono work

Firms that are still refusing to throw their weight behind pro bono work may be forced to do so by their clients, according to the chief executive of the Solicitors’ Pro Bono Group (SPBG) Sue Bucknall.

Growing numbers of UK corporates are vowing to consider pro bono programmes when outsourcing legal work, while several major corporates, including, SITA, The Cooperative Bank and Sony, have indicated that a firm’s commitment to pro bono work will be considered when deciding panel reviews and tenders for work. global legal counsel David Hickson said: “It’s something we’d like our law firms to do as it gives the outward impression that they aren’t just about generating profits for their equity partners.”

However, the company is still some way away from making pro bono work all persuasive when considering panel reviews.

Jonathan Pearl, head of legal at Sony, has gone one step further, vowing to quiz partners not only about the firm’s pro bono programme, but also about their personal commitment to the cause.

The news follows a concerted push into the corporate world by the SPBG. Bucknall says the group is targeting corporates in an attempt to boost the numbers of firms signing the SPBG’s pro bono protocol.
Vodafone became the first in-house team to join up when head of legal Stephen Scott signed the protocol last November.

According to Bucknall, clients are increasingly viewing pro bono activity as an indication of a firm’s general ethics.

“It shows that if you cut a firm through to the core, the organisation as a whole has a commitment to ethics and social responsibility,” she says.

Firms with public sector clients are already familiar with detailing their commitment to pro bono when pitching for work. It should come as no surprise that the ethically-conscious Cooperative Bank is emphasising pro bono work, but it’s still rare for corporates to insist on commitment to community service and pro bono.

Bucknall says pro bono is a way to combat the image problems that have beset the legal profession since Enron. “Years ago, lawyers enjoyed a fine reputation. This has gone in many areas, but pro bono is the way to regain that respect.”