Developing a pro bono programme in a law firm

16 February 2018

Peter King

Rob Powell

In most law firms, pro bono legal work started as a result of the enthusiasms and interests of a few partners. Doing a favour for a friend is something we all like to do naturally, and most lawyers have always used their professional skills in this way. This may extend to helping out a charity with which the lawyer or her friend is involved, responding to a personal tragedy, or helping an individual in dire need. As a management matter, law firms prefer this sort of legal work to be done within the confines of the law firm, with proper risk management procedures, rather than by individual lawyers acting as free agents.

From these humble origins a tradition of pro bono legal work has developed in many countries around the world, led by the United States and followed in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and more recently developing in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Organisations like the International Bar Association have placed emphasis on this sort of work as part of a lawyer’s responsibility to society, and other organisations such as PiLNET, Advocates for International Development, TrustLaw and the Vance Center have grown, providing links between the community of NGOs and vulnerable individuals and the law firms with resources to serve them.

This article, written by Peter King and Rob Powell from our journal Modern Legal Practice explains the business case for a pro bono programme and contains some suggestions, based on the authors’ experience, as to how to manage a pro bono programme within a modern commercial law firm.

Definition and boundaries
When we talk about a pro bono programme we are referring to pro bono legal work, using the skills we have as lawyers. There are many other programmes within larger law firms which are sometimes referred to generically as “part of our pro bono efforts” which are not, in our view, pro bono legal work. Examples of these might be volunteering work which does not involve legal skills, such as a team outing to decorate rooms at a children’s hospice. It is often beneficial
for lawyers to become trustees of charities, but we would not characterise that as pro bono legal work – it is volunteering for a non-legal role. Similarly, contributing money to charities, or fundraising efforts within an office, are not pro bono legal work.

Ideally, volunteering, philanthropy and pro bono legal work should be part of a coordinated programme which attracts broad involvement from all parts of a law firm (including support staff as well as lawyers). Many law firms now have an integrated corporate social responsibility strategy which incorporates all these elements and which is connected to its diversity strategy and other social and environmental policies. Pro bono legal work, however, has its own special characteristics and management challenges and this article concentrates on those aspects.

When designing a pro bono programme, it is important to decide on the limits of the programme. Broadly, there are two approaches:

  • Under the first approach, the law firm’s management chooses an area or areas of focus, often having consulted the broader workforce. For example, a law firm might decide that it is particularly focused on access to justice as a theme, and will try to ensure that all of its pro bono legal work fits under that broad umbrella. Another example would be where a firm decides to help only those organisations which operate within a certain geographical area around where the office is located. This approach has the advantage of focus, but the area chosen may not give rise to passionate involvement on the part of everyone in the office.
  • The second approach involves allowing partners and other lawyers to follow their own interests and enthusiasms. For example, a partner may wish to support arts organisations exclusively, while another may focus more on the relief of poverty, and another, perhaps influenced by family circumstances, may wish to spend more time providing legal services to charities that are researching a particular disease or helping people with a particular disability. This approach has the benefit of releasing a lot of energy as people follow the areas with which they have a real connection.

Even with the second approach, it will usually be appropriate to set some boundaries. For example, certain charities with particular agendas may not be suitable clients of the firm – representing a religious charity with a proselytising or evangelistic agenda, or a charity which advocates a controversial political cause, may give rise to internal or even reputational problems.

One other issue to be considered is that of need. Usually when representing individuals or small charities it should be clear that they could not afford legal advice, or legal advice of the necessary quality. Larger charities and NGOs may well pay for much of the legal advice they need, or may source their legal advice partly from providers paid by them and partly through pro bono work. As a policy matter, a decision has to be taken on this – providing pro bono advice to a larger NGO or charity can release their funds to do more of their charitable work, and often provides much more interesting work for lawyers, whereas the problems of smaller organisations are often quite routine.

Building a pro bono culture
Regardless of the shape or size of your firm, building a pro bono culture will not happen overnight – it can take considerable time. What is important is that your firm aims to build a programme that is impactful and engaging over the long term. In a similar vein to billable work, law firms work hard to maintain and cultivate the relationships they have with their pro bono clients. It is when these relationships are harnessed that the high quality and complex pro bono work begins to materialise which subsequently engages lawyers and generates excitement. This requires a marketing and client engagement effort just as professional and patient as is necessary with paying clients.

The motivations for a particular firm, organisation or individual to get involved in pro bono will vary. Some will be driven by pure altruism and others will see pro bono as a tool to develop professional and inter-personal skills, or a combination of both. Strategies to promote pro bono will need to reflect these motives as well as the marketing, recruitment and branding benefits which are often a positive by-product of a successful pro bono programme.

An embedded pro bono culture requires a number of ingredients and moving parts. To provide a solid foundation for a pro bono practice to flourish, our experience tells us that a firm should have in place the following:

  • senior buy-in and leadership from partners;
  • clear expectations/targets which are outlined in a firm pro bono policy;
  • effective internal communications to promote opportunities;
  • a pro bono committee usually chaired by a partner which meets on a regular basis to monitor, govern and drive your pro bono efforts;
  • a portfolio of pro bono clients which provides a healthy pipeline of work.

If your firm is at an early stage of developing a pro bono practice, a good starting point is to consider the following:

  • nominate a partner champion;
  • gauge interest from colleagues via an online survey to find out what types of pro bono activities they are interested in and what social issues they care about;
  • recruit lawyers from each practice area in the firm to form a committee;
  • find out what other firms of a similar size/competitors are doing in relation to pro bono;
  • contact the pro bono brokerage organisations highlighted in the introduction.

The business case for pro bono
The primary goal for any law firm’s pro bono practice is to widen access to justice. Even the most cynical lawyers have to concede that this is a good thing.
But beyond being ‘the right thing to do’, there are a number of benefits to having a robust pro bono programme in place. The positive impact will usually reverberate across the firm and be felt in areas such as graduate and lateral recruitment, the retention of top talent, public relations and firm culture.

Pro bono provides a solid training ground for junior lawyers to develop their skills by taking on greater responsibilities at an earlier stage in their careers by running matters and being the main contact for the pro bono client. Often pro bono clients have fewer internal resources and this provides an opportunity for junior lawyers to become more involved in the business decision-making process and to interact with CEOs, boards and other senior people. For litigators, a pro bono matter may provide a great opportunity to obtain trial experience at an early stage in their career.

These benefits are of course very difficult to quantify, but there are a number of practical ways a firm can measure the business benefits:

  • analysing the relationship between lawyers with high billable and pro bono hours;
  • monitoring the retention and progression of lawyers who are engaged in pro bono against those who are not;
  • measuring how many candidates ask about pro bono during the interview stages of recruitment;
  •  recording how many hits the pro bono section of your firm’s website receives or how many award nominations for pro bono work your firm receives.

A successful pro bono practice is no longer just an optional extra for a commercial law firm which finds its lawyers have time on their hands. Many firms see pro bono work as an essential part of their firm’s culture, which enables lawyers to see the practice of law and their own role as lawyers in a much broader social and political context. The benefits in terms of recruitment and retention of talent are clear. The challenge for the future is to direct pro bono capacity where it can make the most impact, and to develop further and more innovative ways of measuring and recording that impact.

Peter King is a partner of Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP and co-chair of its global and London Pro Bono Committees. He is also chair of the Pro Bono Committee of the International Bar Association. Rob Powell is head of Pro Bono & CSR at Weil, Gotshal & Manges (London) LLP.