The last few years were particularly challenging for each and every person around the world. And it was no different for lawyers. From health to hunger, the hardships opened up new avenues for law practices in Brazil and considerably increased the relevance of philanthropy, including through pro bono.
Initiatives such as Unidos pela Vacina stood out in 2021, having engaged more than 4,500 volunteers and 470 donors to raise 56 million Brazilian reais to deliver more than 2 million items for nearly every municipality in Brazil for the Covid-19 vaccination campaign. Three of the biggest law firms united to provide legal assistance for the project, showing that there is no competition in the sector when it comes to overcoming the crisis of the century.
Strategic litigation for public interest was also a recent watershed in pro bono practices in Brazil. From their homes or offices, lawyers have dedicated hundreds of hours to study possible strategies, prepare central arguments and represent NGOs in lawsuits that are often part of a bigger advocacy campaign. Public policies and rights of minorities (LGBTI, people with disabilities, Afro-descendants, women, among others) are two of the most common topics.
In this respect, it is worth highlighting a lawsuit discussing the constitutionality of Decree 10,502, which is considered a setback for the right for an inclusive education, encompassing both people with and without disabilities. Dozens of NGOs participated as amici curiae, or ‘friend of the court’, presenting different arguments and perspectives on the importance of this right. Furthermore, such NGOs and law practitioners formed the Brazilian Coalition for an Inclusive Education.
But recent years have not been entirely positive.
With regulation that only goes back to 2015, pro bono practices are still in their infancy in Brazil. The pandemic made things tough for law firms that were initiating such work but imposed major obstacles for those that were already up and running. For instance, all in person active projects had to be suspended, including TozziniFreire’s legal joint effort at the favela (slum) of Heliópolis, an initiative that provided over 400 pieces of legal advice from about 140 volunteers (15% of the firm’s legal practitioners) in 2019.
Pro bono coordinators have faced multiple challenges. With two years of isolation, coordinators were prevented from physically identifying which lawyers and teams were overburdened and which had the time to go the extra mile for a major pro bono project. They also missed out natural interactions with new members, making it more difficult to know who was spontaneously willing to engage. Despite such setbacks, several law firms demonstrated record levels of pro bono engagement, multiplying the dedicated hours and professionals working on the issue proportionally to increased public awareness of pro bono. At our office, besides the pro bono corporate governance that had already been institutionalised, three new positions were opened for the pro bono team and all previous records were broken.
Brazil is gradually becoming a fertile landscape for pro bono projects that aim to have major impact. However, there is still a long way for pro bono to become embedded in the routine and culture of the legal practice in the country, bringing lawyers and civil society closer and closer together in order to make a positive impact.