Pro bono work produced by corporate firms should not be scoffed at

We are now half way through the 13th annual National Pro Bono Week. We have heard from the Law Society, the Bar Council and CILEx on the importance of pro bono work and the amount undertaken by the solicitor profession in the last 12 months.

The calculation of hours spent on pro bono will always depend on the metrics used by each survey. And at DLA Piper’s breakfast panel this week, it was suggested the £601m headline figure of estimated value for pro bono work should be ‘buried’ lest government view it as validation for their swingeing cuts to legal aid.

Any legal aid practitioner will stress that the figures for both pro bono hours and estimated value represent a mixture of work undertaken for individuals and charities. And with much of the pro bono carried out by large corporate firms catered exclusively for the NGO market, a proper comparison with the cuts to legal aid is not feasible.

This week I have noticed that practitioners at the opposite end of the market to the silver and magic circle firms have taken to social media to scoff at the ‘corporate pro bono offerings’. While National Pro Bono Week should correctly focus on the work undertaken by small firms and UK-based projects, there is a whole raft of work carried out by corporate firms on the international stage which should also be highlighted and praised where applicable.

I recently spoke to Richard Dyton, a partner at Simmons & Simmons who says there is great enthusiasm for pro bono work within his firm especially since it initiated a systematic approach to its pro bono projects.

“It’s a more disciplined and rigorous system than a few years ago,” said Dyton. “Every lawyer has a 50 hour pro bono target for the year which gets fed into the appraisal process and bonus system. There is a keenness not just to meet that target, but to actually get involved in pro bono, notwithstanding the target. That goes across the board from trainee right the way up to senior partner.”

Simmons & Simmons have approximately 150 ongoing pro bono relationships covering more than 400 live projects.

Olga Hancock, the firm’s international pro bono manager told me that one of the areas the firm has focused on recently has been in representing vulnerable communities and protecting land rights in developing countries against ‘land grabs’. The firm’s lawyers have advised on cases as far afield as Tanzania, Cameroon, Colombia, and the Solomon Islands.

“Once people become engaged, they’re often happy to run the client relationships themselves as they would with any other client,” explained Hancock. “Once they do that they become more and more involved in the charities, sometimes becoming trustees, and they’ll start running teams and projects themselves.”

It might be surprising for some to learn that, far from being protective of their own pro bono relationships and projects, many firms are willing to share their load. “Roger Leese of Clifford Chance became a good friend of mine through pro bono,” said Dyton. “If there’s something Clifford Chance can’t do he might refer it to me. Likewise we referred a case to DLA Piper. There’s a great deal of cooperation and mutual respect between firms.”

One charity that benefits from this collegiate approach is Amicus-ALJ, a small legal charity which helps provide representation for those facing the death penalty in the United States.

Last week, I spoke to Amicus’ director, Margot Ravenscroft, who advised on the crucial support they receive from the profession. “We have over a hundred solicitors and barristers in the UK helping us with case work,” she said. “They bring experience in processing and understanding how to pull out issues from complex and lengthy documents; it is that skill base we are tapping into.”

Amicus is based at Baker & Mckenzie’s London office and has casework teams at a number of large firms including Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Jones Day, Linklaters, Mayer Brown, Pinsent Masons, Kingsley Napley, Allen & Overy and Reed Smith. “The ethos of pro bono has filtered into firms. They realise it is important to offer varied pro bono for staff retention, clients and recruitment. It is a great marketing tool and great for staff enrichment,” commented Ravenscroft.

But why would some of the biggest law firms in the country want to get their hands dirty working on international capital punishment cases?

“The feedback I get from lawyers is that it reminds them why they wanted to become a lawyer in the first place and gives them something more varied even if it is the same work, albeit the material is vastly different,” explained Ravenscroft.

Amicus runs a US Death Penalty training course twice a year, hosted by Freshfields. Three hundred delegates attend each year with the vast majority of those being students at various stages of their legal education. From these delegates, around 35 go on to participate in internships with capital defenders in the US.

“I say to law students that if they are interested in this kind of work, but still want to make a living, then it is actual the corporate firms that give the pro bono hours and allow you to do this sort of stimulating work. If you are a budding criminal defence lawyer you won’t get to do this work because you’ll be too busy, especially with the recent cuts to legal aid,” admitted Ravenscroft.

But is the work of an international campaigning organisation of any real use to UK practitioners? Amicus’ office manager Lydia Lucente thinks it can: “Last year we spoke at Queen Mary University on the subject of legal aid. They brought us in specifically to talk about what happens when you don’t fund lawyers properly, and explained the issues of how that relates to the death penalty in the US. While we don’t have capital punishment in this country there are still injustices that occur and it is still a warning for the UK.”

This blog was first published in the Solicitors Journal on 6 November 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission.