In the current period of austerity, and with the reduction in state legal aid providing support for individuals who are unable to pay for legal advice, we have seen an increased need for pro bono work by the legal professions. While even a dramatic increase in pro bono will never be enough to plug the justice gap, law firms are seeking not only to increase the contribution by individual firms, but also to work together to increase the pro bono work they are able to provide.
Firstly, we are seeing improved collaboration between law firms. Larger UK firms and UK offices of US firms that have typically had a more ingrained tradition of pro bono than has been the case in the UK, are attempting to foster a culture of pro bono in the UK. The Collaborative Plan for Pro Bono was set up in 2014 by a group of firms to provide a forum to exchange ideas and best practices in carrying out pro bono work, and to try to increase the amount of pro bono done in the UK. The number of member firms continues to grow (currently 36, with many more joining the meetings with a hope of joining in the future), and the group has initiated concrete projects such as UKademy, a conference in September aimed at people who manage pro bono work in law firms. The Law Society is also developing a Pro Bono Charter to provide law firms with a mechanism to record and demonstrate their commitment to pro bono against industry-wide standards.
Secondly, solicitors are collaborating with barristers on pro bono cases in a more structured way. One group particularly hit by cuts in legal aid are low income individuals. While corporate law firms have been willing to provide pro bono work for charities and non-profit entities, there has been less enthusiasm for representation of individuals. The reasons for this are unclear. However, to the extent this type of work may be viewed as “outside the comfort zone” of commercial lawyers, partnership with colleagues at the bar, through schemes such as Pro Bono Connect, may provide encouragement for solicitors to take on such matters, and may increase the willingness of barristers to become involved in matters that involve significant work of the type generally undertaken by solicitors. The Courts are also setting up schemes to provide free legal representation to individuals for certain hearings, with assistance from solicitors who have rights to appear in the courts (such as the Court of Appeal Pro Bono Advocate Scheme).
Thirdly, there is greater collaboration between law firms and their corporate clients and with NGOs. Corporations are increasingly encouraging in-house counsel to participate in pro bono work, and this often means partnering with private practice. We have also seen NGOs and pro bono clearinghouses seeking to work with law firms to develop a strategy to meet their aims, rather than asking for help with discrete projects. This increasingly involves exploring litigation in the EU or before international tribunals, as well as the UK.
As the amount of pro bono undertaken increases, more firms are appointing dedicated pro bono managers, and providing billable equivalent credit for time spent on pro bono work. Such initiatives ensure pro bono forms part of the core practice of being a solicitor, and is fully considered in evaluating lawyers’ performance. However, it remains the case that larger firms in London have more opportunity to provide formal pro bono work compared to smaller firms (with fewer than 11 partners) in the regions in the UK. Such firms, while not doing as much “pro bono” work, according to the Law Society pro bono survey for 2015, often provide work for individuals at much reduced fees. This contribution arguably still meets the aims of pro bono - to provide legal advice to those who cannot afford to pay commercial rates.