The fat cat case for pro bono work

Rufus D'Cruz and Tom Coghlin argue that pro bono can no longer be seen as the preserve of the left wing of the profession.

Few members of the public are aware that lawyers perform unpaid work. The irony is that pro bono work is as old as our unpopularity with the public.

The idea of lawyers working for free may seem a contradiction in terms, but it is not new. In the fifteenth century English lawyers were often required by the courts to provide pro bono representation.

In recent years the involvement of unpaid British lawyers in high-profile death row appeals in the Caribbean, the US and elsewhere has increased the visibility of pro bono work.

But less glamourous work is undertaken by thousands of lawyers across the country. In the region of 1,700 barristers are involved in formal pro bono schemes. In 1989 41 per cent of solicitors provided some unpaid services. It has been estimated that, on average, lawyers in independent practice offer some 37 hours of free assistance per annum.

Pro bono work benefits many who would otherwise go unassisted. In this era of ever-shrinking legal aid provision, both practising lawyers and law students can make a difference.

A surprising diversity of legal skills is in demand. Areas where help is required include immigration, wills, crime, welfare, family, employment, discrimination, public and commercial law (even charities need to draft contracts).

Pro bono work is no longer seen as the exclusive domain of a few left-wing high street lawyers confined to narrow specialisations. Lawyers in every field have the opportunity to contribute.

The first port of call could well be your own firm. Some firms have their own in-house schemes – a good example is the death row unit run by Saul Lehrfreund at Simons Muirhead & Burton.

There is also a wealth of organisations that use the services of volunteers. Lawyers can get involved through professional bodies (such as the Bar Pro Bono Unit), through independent bodies (for example Citizens' Advice Bureaux), or through single-issue bodies (such as the Redress Trust).

There is always a danger that groups involved in the more glamorous areas of work will have higher profiles and will attract the bulk of applicants. However, volunteers may be rewarded by carefully choosing their preferred organisation. Smaller organisations are often able to offer more responsibility, and thus the chance of greater experience.

In the past much pro bono work has been centred around London. There is now a desire to ensure that work is devolved to the regions. Many groups are keen to enlist the support of regional volunteers. Most organisations have a nationwide presence and volunteers can communicate with those that do not by fax, DX, and e-mail. Geography should not be an obstacle to participation.

These organisations are desperate for recruits at all levels. Students and newly-qualified lawyers are extremely welcome since they are often well placed to offer time and effort on a consistent basis.

So why should lawyers undertake pro bono work? The reasons go far beyond self-interest of volunteers and the publicity available to firms.

Pro bono work helps lawyers dispel their image as “fat cats”. Unless their ideas carry authority, lawyers cannot hope to influence public opinion on issues such as legal aid reforms, sentencing policy, human rights and freedom of information. Being in a position to influence public opinion has never been more important than today, presided over as we are by a government paying such close attention to the opinion of the public.