Even against the backdrop of a pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, Australian legal professionals have completed more pro bono hours than at any point in the last decade.
The Australian Pro Bono Centre has released its 13th Annual Performance Report on the National Pro Bono Target (a benchmark of 35 hours of pro bono legal services per lawyer per year for signatories). The report notes that, in the past financial year, Australian lawyers completed an average of 36.4 hours of pro bono work over the course of that 12-month period.
Breakdown of results
In total, Australian legal professionals undertook 551,427.5 hours of pro bono work in FY20, which marks a 16.5 per cent rise in pro bono hours compared to the previous year.
The average of 36.4 hours per lawyer for Target signatories is the highest average number of hours reported since 2011, APBC said, beating last year’s figure of 35.8 hours.
Notably, APBC said, the average hours of pro bono work per lawyer in smaller law firms (i.e. fewer than 50 lawyers) “significantly increased” to 35.7 hours in FY20, up from 32.9 hours the previous year.
As a result, 32 small law firms met or exceeded the Target, compared to 26 firms last year.
Elsewhere, the Foundation Target signatories – “signatories who committed to the Target before its launch on 26 April 2007” – completed 48.6 pro bono hours per lawyer this past financial year, APBC noted, making for a stark contrast against more recent signatories. Those deemed by APBC as Mature signatories (i.e. “those signatories who committed to the Target before 1 July 2014”) undertook 38.2 hours per lawyer this past year.
APBC CEO Gabriela Christian-Hare (pictured) said that the Australian pro bono community should be applauded for its increasing commitment to supporting and empowering disadvantaged members of society.
“Despite significant operational challenges, many Target signatories have continued to prioritise pro bono work as a crucial pillar of access to justice, and an integral part of the professional life of Australian lawyers,” she said.
“Overall, the Target community has proven it is responsive, adaptable, and dedicated. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic many signatories have continued to offer pro bono support despite remote-working challenges and reduced staffing.
“Many Target signatories have been part of a coordinated, collaborative response across the legal assistance sector to aid our society’s most vulnerable individuals and to support numerous charities, not-for-profits and other community organisations during this extraordinarily challenging year involving bushfires and a global pandemic.”
APBC chair Phillip Cornwell supported this, saying the legal profession “responded magnificently” to the Black Summer bushfires and then the challenges of the pandemic.
“Law firms have been doing good since long before the development of notions of corporate social responsibility; they have never been subject to Milton Friedman’s strictures of profit at all costs,” he said.
“Further, pro bono work is flourishing not only because it benefits society, it also helps lawyers build skills, resilience and a broader and more nuanced view of the world. In addition there are recruitment and retention benefits for firms.”
More work still needed
However, Ms Christian-Hare did add that there remains a “disparity” in effort among Target signatories.
“Only 44.3 per cent of Target signatories met or exceeded the Target in the 2020 financial year – down by 1.2 per cent since 2019,” she commented.
Mr Cornwell supported this, saying that not all law firms are capturing the benefits for recruitment and retention from undertaking more pro bono work, and noted there are still numerous signatories to the Target with “very low” average hours per lawyer.
“For example, there are six large firms with average per lawyer hours in single figures,” he identified.
“It is understandable that new signatories will take time to build up their pro bono practices – the Centre has instituted a mentor system to help them do just that – but some of these firms are not new to the Target.
“With the Centre’s encouragement many governments and corporates now require firms to sign up for the Target as a condition of getting on to their legal panels. We would like to see governments and corporates take the next step by pressing the chronic underachievers to show how they will redress this imbalance.”
That said, APBC detailed that a total of 15,779 FTE lawyers across the country are now covered by the Target, marking a substantial jump from FY19, in which just over 14,000 lawyers were covered. Moreover, there are now 187 Target signatories, up from 161 this time last year.
“The 2020 Target results indicate that pro bono conditions in Commonwealth and state government tender arrangements are continuing to have an important influence on the number of firms signing up to the Target and the amount of pro bono work undertaken,” APBC said in a statement.