Pro bono & community action

Weil Gotshal & Manges is ramping up its London-based pro bono activity by advising a number of charities for the homeless on human rights and UK Government policy.

Lawyers recently advised Crisis on the Government’s white paper on antisocial behaviour. Response papers drafted by the firm challenged the Government’s controversial proposals to criminalise begging on human rights grounds. Michael Jones, chair of the firm’s London pro bono programme, said that in its attempt to sweep away aggressive begging, the Government proposed “sweeping up the rest of the street population and criminalising them”.

Jones delights in the fact that, as he puts it, “the Government appears to have quietly dropped those proposals”.

Another major project was advising Oxfam on the competition and human rights aspects of the EU’s common agricultural policy and supportive regimes for the food industry. Senior fee-earners in London and Brussels represented several African states in challenging protective trade polices and supportive price regimes for the food industry in Europe and the US.

The firm

Weil Gotshal & Manges has been in London since 1996, but it is only in the last 18 months that pro bono has gained prominence. Average annual pro bono hours per lawyer per year have increased from around 13 to 17, mainly due to the advice projects for Crisis and Oxfam.

With litigation bearing the bulk of the load, 128 lawyers are currently notching up 2,200 billable hours per annum. Jones acknowledges that “the big numbers are being clocked up by litigation” and says he is striving to “broaden the base of folk doing pro bono”.

Many of the litigators are former barristers and are involved in employment tribunal cases for the Free Representation Unit (FRU) and providing civil litigation support in the Bar Pro Bono Unit. The matters are mainly small civil disputes such as “arm-wrestling matches over ownership of a house or small commercial things”, says Jones.

At the FRU, lawyers represent applicants in employment discrimination cases. A group of junior lawyers staff the Royal Courts of Justice Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) on a monthly basis, but Jones is sceptical about “firms that run up the pro bono banner and then leave it to young lawyers to run down to the CAB on a wet Thursday”.

Accordingly, the firm is seeking to involve the “silverbacks of the trade” in pro bono. Projects like those for Crisis and Oxfam “more than justify senior fee-earner’s time”, Jones insists.

The Lawyer verdict

Although still embryonic, the pro bono programme at Weil Gotshal & Manges’ London office is showing signs of the sort of sophistication expected from US firms. Work for the Free Representation Unit and the Citizens Advice Bureau provides ideal training and experience for more junior lawyers, while senior lawyers can be involved in major projects such as those for Crisis and Oxfam. However, litigators continue to carry the bulk of London’s pro bono work. The challenge now is to find ways of involving transactional lawyers in meaningful pro bono activities. Advice work for major charities and non-governmental organisations is a laudable development.