What a relief to be celebrating a really good Law Society initiative – the launch today (10 June) of the first National Pro Bono Week. Credit where credit is due. This is precisely what the profession needs – an opportunity to demonstrate that lawyers are not the ruthless, fee-generating machines they are often portrayed as, but are rather caring, committed professionals who want to give something back to society. Yes, for this week at least lawyers can be seen by the public as nice people to do business with.
You will find pro bono at virtually every type of legal practice. In the high street, many lawyers take it for granted that their role is part lawyer, part counsellor, part social welfare worker. Pro bono is an everyday fact of life for them. In the City, pro bono is more structured and organised. It is regarded as an important training ground for young lawyers, who are encouraged to combine their youthful enthusiasm with their keen intellect and sense of social justice in helping those who are not able to help themselves.
The purpose of the Law Society's initiative is to recruit more lawyers to the pro bono cause and to find ways of giving the public better access to the pool of pro bono advice available. Clearly, the interests of the public will be best served if the profession can consolidate in one central organisation all the pro bono services currently available through the Solicitors Pro Bono Group and the Bar, as well as legal executive equivalents, to form one united pro bono organisation for lawyers that can coordinate and promote free legal advice to those who need it most.
So why should you undertake pro bono work? It is interesting to look at the US, where pro bono has become an important part of law firm business strategy. In the US, there is a heightened awareness of the benefits of corporate good citizenship, which is seen to add value to a firm in terms of its attractiveness to potential recruits, its reputation in the community and its general standing. The majority of US law firms engage in what they call issue-centred pro bono, which is related to the corporate good citizenship efforts of their major corporate clients. Others prefer to provide a pro bono legal service to non-profit organisations, where the effort tends to be concentrated on children's issues, housing and homelessness issues and aspects of family law.
In this country, pro bono is far less well publicised. Firms seem almost shy about advertising the free work they do. It is as if they fear that if they let their clients know that they are prepared to work for nothing, those clients will expect the same.
I urge other lawyers to join the pro bono movement. Pro bono has a way of making you keep your feet on the ground and of giving you a better perspective on what is really important in life. Pro bono refreshes the parts of a lawyer's professional life that other work cannot reach. It is an exciting and enriching experience that will make you realise you can make a difference, that you can leave your mark on the lives of your clients.
That is what pro bono has done for me. It could do the same for you.
And what about that phrase 'pro bono'? Can't we think of something a bit snappier? As my son asked: “Why is the Law Society so in favour of U2? They're not that great a band.”
Christopher Digby-Bell is chief executive and legal director of Palmer Capital Partners, honorary legal adviser to the Down's Syndrome Association and a Law Society Council member for the City of London