Today marks the beginning of National Pro Bono Week, with events being held across the country to celebrate the range and impact of pro bono work undertaken by solicitors, barristers and legal executives. A calendar of events can be found here.
How much pro-bono, or free, work should a lawyer do? This is a question which I have heard asked surprisingly rarely. I cannot recall the topic being addressed during my legal training, although pro-bono work was generally encouraged not just as charity but also as an excellent way of gaining legal experience with a view to finding a job. This was certainly my experience, and I cannot stress enough how valuable my work at the Free Representation Unit was in providing an interesting and valuable insight into representing real clients.
The Times asked last week how much free work a lawyer should do, and quoted the quite astonishing statistic that American lawyers at the top of the legal profession take on over four times more pro bono work per year than their UK equivalents. Whereas lawyers at ‘Magic Circle’ firms in the UK do around 30 hours per year, their American counterparts take on 125. This amounts to just over 30 minutes per week in the UK versus over 2 hours in the US. The Times does not say what the equivalent figures are for non-magic circle firms or the Bar, but I would not be surprised if they were similar; from my experience in the US, there is a genuine difference in attitudes. This may reflect a wider ‘can-do’ approach to charitable giving in the US , but that does not mean things cannot change on our own legal community.
This is clearly a failing at both the corporate and individual level in the UK, and it seems that only a cultural shift would improve the situation. Of course barristers should not be excused either, although they are in a slightly different situation as, unlike solicitors who will still be paid their salary if they are permittted to do pro-bono work in ordinary working hours, barristers must take the financial hit personally as they are self-employed. That being said, many solicitors work for free not just in their company’s time but also their own, such as those who work at evening legal advice centres.
With the incoming cuts to legal aid, pro-bono work, which is certainly an important element of the ‘Big Society‘ – if it indeed exists – will take on new significance and the legal profession will have to think hard about how to encourage lawyers to take on more work for free.
The profession needs to work more creatively to encourage lawyers to take the pro-bono plunge. Some will see taking on a full case as too much work. Or maybe they are fearful of client contact, which is normally not a part of their advisory tax practice. But pro-bono work is as varied as the legal profession itself. The Bar Pro Bono Unit or LawWorks can match up lawyers with simple and discrete advisory work, and Liberty ask that lawyers attend their offices for two hours on a Monday or Thursday to answer calls to their human rights advice line. One need never meet a client to do good work.
Also, lawyers can find ways of matching their talents and hobbies to pro-bono work. For example, someone who enjoys writing and is a housing law aficionado could set up a housing law blog, providing expert legal analysis for free, as those who write the Nearly Legal blog did. Or one could become a trustee of a legal charity or help fundraise for the new National Pro Bono Centre (their open day is on Tuesday 9 November). The possibilities and opportunities are huge, and it can be fun too.
Lawyers working for free is not the only way of plugging the legal aid gap, nor should it be: it may be that novel ‘no win no fee’ arrangements will play an important part too. But as things stand, at the beginning of a week celebrating the excellent pro-bono work which many lawyers do, there is clearly much still to be done to convince UK lawyers to do more.
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