National Pro Bono Week 2016—current developments in pro bono

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Sharing resources collaboratively, as well as a growing awareness that firms and lawyers gain invaluable experience and perspective from pro bono work, are just two trends emerging fast within the pro bono sector. As part of National Pro Bono Week 2016, Daniel Gerring, corporate social responsibility partner at Travers Smith, outlines what the firm has been learning and putting into practice as part of its award winning pro bono efforts.

What is the rationale behind pro bono work and what are some of the main proposals for National Pro Bono Week 2016?

Pro bono work gives individuals and organisations the opportunity to access legal advice which would otherwise not be available to them, or which would divert funds away from their essential needs or objectives. It also allows lawyers to develop a broader range of skills and experience than their paid work might normally extend to them and provides an opportunity for the legal profession to make a valuable contribution to society.

Since Pro Bono Week was launched by the Attorney General in 2001, the landscape has changed significantly. In particular, cuts in legal aid have placed increasing pressure on the system and now, more than ever, lawyers are observing a significant demand for pro bono work to help bridge the gap. The good news is that, in my experience, lawyers are embracing this demand, as well as a wide range of requests for help in other areas, and enthusiastically undertake more and more pro bono work.

Pro Bono Week 2016 celebrates this work and provides opportunities for solicitors, barristers and others to share best practice and foster collaboration. The launch by the Law Society of its new Pro Bono Charter and Manual—a statement of commitment that firms and in-house teams are invited to sign up to—looks set to be an exciting new element of this year’s Pro Bono Week.

What ways can law firms get involved and what more needs to be done to raise awareness?

At Travers Smith, we offer our lawyers a variety of ways to get involved with legal pro bono projects. These projects cover a number of different areas of the law and are frequently sourced through associations with, and referrals from, charities and local legal advice clinics. A few examples of our work include:

  • working alongside advocates for international development on international pro bono projects (for clients such as Action for Children in Conflict and The Rainforest Foundation UK)
  • providing pensions law advice to individuals in partnership with The Pensions Advisory Service, as well as advice to charities on their pensions obligations as employers—most recently to the Domestic Violence Intervention Project
  • being one of the founder members of a Family Law Clinic in east London, in collaboration with University House, which provides urgent advice and support to victims of domestic violence
  • providing legal and practical support to help set up a new charity, Refugees at Home (RAH), aimed at assisting refugees and asylum seekers entering the UK—since its launch in 2015 the charity has provided over 5,500 nights of accommodation for vulnerable people

Travers Smith’s work in supporting RAH and establishing the Family Law Clinic has recently been recognised with a number of nominations for pro bono awards. Most recently our work with RAH was awarded the ‘Law in the Community/Pro Bono Award’ at the 2016 Halsbury Legal Awards and our work on both projects is currently shortlisted for ‘CSR/Diversity Initiative of the Year’ at the British Legal Awards.

The firm is always open to considering new legal pro bono projects and relationships which might enable its lawyers to draw upon their legal skills and commercial expertise to advise, facilitate solutions, and increase resources for deserving causes in local and global communities.

What more needs to be done to drive improvements in the uptake of pro bono work by solo and small firms? Are there any specific reasons why this is more difficult, and how it can be addressed?

One of the key restrictions on solo and small firms actively engaging in pro bono work is a lack of resource and capacity. Travers Smith is one of the 40 city law firms involved in the collaborative plan for pro bono. Recognising that not all firms have capacity or resources to engage with pro bono cases, the purpose of the group is to collaborate on pro bono legal matters, create opportunities for smaller firms to get involved, and spread the cost of training and resources among all participants.

Besides altruism, what are the incentives for legal practitioners and law firms to take on pro bono cases?

Through our pro bono work we engage with diverse audiences and communities. By working on pro bono matters, our lawyers have the opportunity to expand their knowledge and experiences, and to acquire new and readily applicable skills. This work also enables our lawyers to view the world through a different lens and to recognise their position within society more generally, rather than simply within the business world. Though not a driver for us in undertaking legal pro bono projects, a number of our clients enquire about our legal pro bono work. Indeed, we have found that sharing our experiences and good practice has enabled us to build deeper relationships with our clients.

Following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, what plans have been put in place by law firms to offer free legal advice in the face of legal aid cuts?

Travers Smith are currently working with two legal advice centres, University House and City Law School. Both centres play an important role in broadening the range of people who can access our legal skills, and in helping meet the needs of people who will have been affected by cuts in legal aid provision. In addition, we are working with other organisations and charities which play an important role in supporting vulnerable or disadvantaged members of our community, as we recognise that these are often the groups who are affected disproportionately by legal aid cuts.

What could the general public and other stakeholders do to push law firms to take on more pro bono cases? Are there any interesting developments in the field of pro bono?

The drive to increase the firm’s pro bono caseload comes from within. It is a core element of our work. That being said, enquiries from clients and potential employees about the level of our pro bono engagement provides a further positive incentive to continue to build out our pro bono offering.

The most interesting development in the pro bono field at present is the willingness among firms to come together and pool learning, resource and ideas in order to provide greater pro bono services to those that need them most. This is a move that is to be encouraged, particularly at a time when government spending in this area is being cut.

Interviewed by Julian Sayarer. The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

Filed Under: Practice of Law

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