Pro bono breakdown: Where firms are concentrating their efforts

28 February 2021 By Emma Ryan
Pro bono breakdown

The Australian Pro Bono Centre’s latest research has confirmed where the majority of firms are placing their efforts.

The Australian Pro Bono Centre has released its seventh National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey, which examines the pro bono output of Australian firms with 50 or more lawyers.

As well as identifying the average number of “pro bono hours per lawyer”, the survey also shed light on the type of pro bono work being carried out.

“A key aim of pro bono legal work is to provide access to justice to individuals who are experiencing disadvantage or marginalisation. Accordingly, many large firms focus a significant proportion of their pro bono work on directly assisting disadvantaged individuals,” the survey said.

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“Many firms, however, also assist not-for-profits or mission-based organisations whose core business is assisting people in need or furthering the public interest. Assisting organisations encourages broad and deep participation in pro bono by creating opportunities for lawyers in large firms to apply their existing commercial legal skills on a pro bono basis.”

The centre noted the type of pro bono legal work undertaken by a firm depends on a range of factors, including the firm’s “areas of expertise; the interests of its staff and leadership, the firm’s strategic objectives regarding access to justice and addressing unmet legal need; whether requests for pro bono assistance are received from CLCs, referral organisations or directly from clients; and, the firm’s capacity to assist at the relevant time".

Breaking down efforts, the survey asked respondents to calculate the proportion of pro bono legal work that they carried out for individuals and for organisations in the 2020 financial year.

According to the results, on average firms undertook 46.5 per cent of their pro bono legal work for individuals, versus 53.5 per cent for organisations. This is similar to 2018, where 47 per cent of firms undertook their pro bono legal work for individuals.

That being said, the results differ when splitting up the respondents into three groups.

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“Group A”, which includes the firms that hold 450 or more FTE lawyers, saw 45 per cent of their pro bono efforts go towards individuals.

Meanwhile “Group B”, which includes the firms that hold between 201 and 449 FTE lawyers, saw 55 per cent of their pro bono efforts go towards individuals, and “Group C”, which includes the firms that hold between 50 and 200 FTE lawyers, saw 38 per cent of their pro bono efforts go towards individuals.

“Group A firms performed on average 45 per cent of their pro bono legal work for individuals, slightly more than the 42 per cent reported in 2018, but still significantly down from the peak of 53 per cent reported in 2016. Four out of nine Group A respondents reported performing more work for individuals than for organisations,” the centre said.

“By contrast, in Group B, an average of 55 per cent of pro bono legal work directly assisted individuals. This is down from the 60 per cent reported in 2018, but still higher than the results of earlier years. Eight of the 15 firms in Group B performed more work for individuals than organisations (with another three reporting a 50/50 split).

“Group C firms performed on average 38 per cent of their pro bono legal work for individuals. This is slightly down from the 40 per cent reported in 2018, and closer to the 2016 result of 37 per cent. Four of the 14 Group C firms reported doing at least half of their pro bono work for individuals.

“These results do suggest a plateauing of the trend observed in 2018 of mid-sized firms increasingly assisting individuals. Nonetheless, mid-sized firms as a group still have a clear commitment to providing most of their pro bono work for the benefit of individuals.”

Pro bono breakdown: Where firms are concentrating their efforts
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