Who is behind pro bono?

The Solicitor's Pro Bono Group (SPBG) is not finding things easy at the moment.

“We still get firms which don't see it as part of their core value or at least don't want to join part of the profession-wide effort to spread the word,” says Tony Willis, chair of the SPBG's board of trustees and a Clifford Chance consultant. “This illustrates an attitude toward this issue which is still insufficiently thought through.”

Many law firms are reticent about a formal commitment to pro bono work and there is almost universal agreement that the profession in the UK continues to lag years behind countries such as the US and Australia.

And, to make matters worse, Peta Sweet, the group's highly respected director, has resigned.

Sweet has been in the role since the group's inception in 1997 and is widely regarded as the driving force behind the campaign to overhaul the profession's attitude to the conduct and organisation of pro bono work.

Willis believes that at the outset no one fully appreciated the enormity of the task that was being laid squarely on Sweet's shoulders.

And he accepts that more could, and perhaps should, have been done to assist her.

“There is absolutely no doubt that Peta and her PA have been given a wholly impossible task. There's absolutely no doubt that insufficient support has been given to them,” he says. “Insufficient support has been given by the profession as a whole.”

Willis accepts that greater resources are essential, but for now they will not be forthcoming. The SPBG employs only Sweet and her PA.

“She would be the first to say if we'd had four of her it still wouldn't be enough. If we'd had 10 of her it might have been making progress. And it's just an expression of how great a burden we have put on her over this period and that burden will continue,” he says.

Some of the pressure could have been lifted by the Law Society with greater support and increased funding, he argues.

For the first two years the group has been supported by 11 of its founding law firms: Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Clyde & Co, Dibb Lupton Alsop, Freshfields, Hammond Suddards, Herbert Smith, Linklaters, Lovell White Durrant, and Slaughter and May and Norton Rose.

With the expiration of this funding, the Law Society's charity fund has produced some cash, with two annual grants of £45,000 payable over the next two years.

The SPBG membership provides all remaining resources. It currently has over 130 members, comprising both individuals and law firms and includes 40 per cent of the top 50 UK firms.

However, this still falls short of the bar's achievements and not all can be blamed on a lack of resources.

The Bar Pro Bono Unit has over 900 members – one in 10 barristers – and in its second year gave assistance in over 400 cases, all on an annual shoestring budget of £33,000.

It is hoped a new initiative, with cooperation from national groups such as the Community Service Volunteers, will allow greater access to barristers for trusts and charities, housing organisations and other groups needing advice on an ongoing basis.

But it is not just money that is the problem. Willis believes it is a continuing profession-wide lack of enthusiasm that is restricting the SPBG's growth and even the growth of pro bono work itself.

“If there was the membership and if there was the will then yes, we would probably like to expand the scope of activities, but we took the very deliberate decision early on that we run on achievable targets. Our overheads remain the same as they were on day one,” Willis says.

Robert Sayer, the new Law Society president, has recognised that initiatives on pro bono work need to be made but there has been no sign of any immediate action.

However, Sweet says: “Law Society involvement is not crucial. In terms of positioning and the way the group is viewed our target has always been the top 100.”

Despite both the Law Society and Willis not foreseeing an imminent sea change in the profession's mentality, there has been some progress this year.

Two major initiatives have been undertaken by the SPBG. In January, the group collaborated with the College of Law to set up an advice clinic run by students, and in March, British Aerospace (BAe) launched an in-house attack, with the support of the SPBG, on law firms not committed to pro bono work.

Terence Black, BAe's deputy legal director of finance, applauds Sweet's success in obtaining the first waiver for an in-house team to conduct pro bono work.

He would like to see pro bono work being eligible for Continued Professional Development points but this, he says, is a long-term goal.

While two more firms have appointed full-time pro bono coordinators in the last six months – Dibb Lupton Alsop and Freshfields – there are still only six practices which have such a post.

Sweet herself stresses the need to significantly increase this number and for all firms to formalise and coordinate their pro bono efforts. She identifies a target of doubling the amount of top 100 firms on the membership roll.

Greater Law Society support also seems imperative if the SPBG is to achieve one of Sweet's principal goals, to establish regional pro bono initiatives around the country.

“The American Bar Association has succeeded in every State [to set up regional initiatives]. We can't do that, but the Law Society can,” she says emphatically.

But the true gauge of Sweet's success will be her own career development from this point on. Her planned new venture is to become a freelance pro bono consultant.

Is the profession ready for a pro bono trouble-shooter? Will it be a commercially viable operation?

She is by no means convinced there is the necessary appetite for such a service but with her current post yet to be advertised there seems little doubt that the SPBG at least will be calling on her services.

The pro bono timeline

November 1996: The Solicitors Pro Bono Group (SPBG) is formed following a meeting of over 50 solicitors.

July 1997: Peta Sweet is appointed as director.

September 1997: The SPBG becomes operational.

June 1998: First SPBG conference.

July 1998: First in-house legal team, British Aerospace (BAe), signs up.

September 1998: Law Society passes a motion supporting and endorsing pro bono effort as well as the group's work.

November 1998: BAe becomes first in-house legal team to gain Law Society approval to conduct pro bono work.

January 1999: College of Law establishes advice clinic.

February 1999: Solicitor General and Attorney General to encourage government lawyers to do pro bono work.

March 1999: The Lawyer reports fears over future of pro bono work and the SPBG.

April 1999: Clifford Chance hosts the first SPBG Pro Bono Platform – a forum for lawyers with a commitment to pro bono to explain how and why they undertake the work.

May 1999: First quarterly forum for leading law firm members of SPBG.

July 1999: BAe introduces clause in its new terms of engagement requiring its law firms to show a commitment to pro bono work.

August 1999: SPBG Law Firm Pro Bono Manual published.

September 1999: Peta Sweet announces her resignation.