The legal profession should shout about its pro bono work from the highest hill rather than allowing only the bad aspects to be publicised, says Tony Michaelson-Yeates. Tony Michaelson-Yeates is a solicitor.
Only two weeks after Peta Sweet, the director of the Solicitors' Pro Bono Group (SPBG), attended a conference of the Yorkshire Union of Law Societies, the Law Society's Yorkshire and North East regional office decided to set up a pro bono unit to act as a regional partner to the SPBG (see The Lawyer, 18 November 1997).
If this is the reaction from the regions to the need for pro bono work, then surely the time has come for the profession to put such work on a proper basis.
We all know that solicitors have always offered some of their services for free and continue to do so. Yet we are loath to let anyone else know about it.
It is no wonder that the public has an incomplete view of what we do. If we allow the bad to be publicised and the good to remain hidden, we should not expect otherwise.
Now, when we need as many friends as possible to help us make sure that the legal aid reforms are introduced in a fair and proper manner, we have no proof of what we do. For the formalisation of pro bono work is just that; evidence that we have been part of the 'Giving Age' for decades.
Marketing the amount and improving the organisation of pro bono work would help the Law Society's attempts to promote access to justice for all where legal aid remains the central plank.
Better organisation of that advice would help firms improve the management of their practices.
Moreover, this is not a venture into the unknown. There are many examples of good practice in this country which deserve to be highlighted. And the American Bar Association Centre for Pro Bono has lots of practical help which can be easily adapted.
The following 10 suggestions for the Law Society Council to consider come from the society's 1994 Pro Bono report, submissions made to the working party and comments from those interested in the proper development of organised pro bono work. Action now could go a long way to presenting a true picture of the profession.
The suggestions are:
1 A policy statement should be included in the Guide to the Professional Conduct of Solicitors encouraging pro bono publico work in areas not covered by legal aid.
2 A definition of pro Bono publico work should be agreed with existing pro bono groups which reflects the wide variety of work being done there.
3 Support should be given to a comprehensive survey of the whole profession to reveal how much pro bono work is being done, and in what form, and a member of staff should be provided to assist in collating and updating the information.
4 Help in funding research into which schemes in the US and other jurisdictions could be applied in the UK.
5 Assistance in establishing referral mechanisms for pro bono cases at a local or regional level.
6 Assistance in compiling and updating a comprehensive guide to advice agencies already offering specialist legal advice for free or at a reduced rate.
7 Recognition of pro bono work as satisfying the training requirements of the Legal Practice Course and the Professional Skills Course and consideration whether such work may satisfy the whole period of the training contract.
8 Recognition of pro bono publico work for Continuing Professional Development purposes.
9 Participation in awards and professional recognition schemes with other organisations.
10 Assistance in overcoming impediments to conducting pro bono work including costs and insurance issues.