‘Considerable room for growth’ in Australia’s pro bono undertakings

‘Considerable room for growth’ in Australia’s pro bono undertakings

22 September 2021 By Jerome Doraisamy

Our legal profession completed a “record-breaking” number of pro bono hours in FY21. However, many firms, teams and practitioners are “missing out on the considerable benefits that flow from undertaking pro bono work”.

‘Record-breaking’ cumulative hours

The Australian Pro Bono Centre has released the 14th Annual Performance Report of the National Pro Bono Target (Target), which shows that Australian lawyers completed a “record-breaking” 641,966 hours of pro bono legal work in the 2021 financial year.

This, the Centre proclaimed, is “by far” the highest number of pro bono hours ever reported by signatories to the Target, marking an increase of 16 per cent from FY20 and a 36 per cent increase from FY19.

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Law firms, incorporated legal practices (ILPs), solicitors and barristers who are signatories to the voluntary Target agree to use their best efforts to provide at least 35 hours of pro bono legal services per lawyer per year. In-house teams who sign up agree to strive for at least 20 hours per lawyer per year.

In FY21, Target signatories reported an average of 39.7 pro bono hours per lawyer – put another way, one week’s worth of work per annum for lawyers who are covered by the Target.

This is the highest average hours per lawyer reported in the last decade and the fourth-highest average since the Target began recording in 2008. The 2009 figure of 41.9 hours per lawyer remains the benchmark.

The Target now covers 16,435 full-time equivalent lawyers across the country (equating to almost one in five lawyers in Australia), with 270 signatories spanning BigLaw and SME firms, individual practitioners and barristers and in-house teams, up from 187 signatories last year.

Room for improvement

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However, it is notable that less than half (45 per cent) of signatories met or exceeded their respective targets, in line with the 44 per cent who met or exceeded targets in FY20.

Despite the positive cumulative volume of pro bono work undertaken by signatories, the Centre noted there is “considerable room for growth”, especially among smaller law firms and in-house teams.

APBC chair Phillip Cornwell said: “One doesn’t want to be ‘glass half empty’ in the face of strong pro bono growth in a difficult year, but it is a shame that quite a few firms, including large firms, are falling well short of the Target, and missing out on the considerable benefits that flow from undertaking pro bono work”.

“Not the least of these benefits is fulfilling the pro bono requirements imposed by governments and the growing number of ESG-minded corporates as a condition of membership of their legal panels. I encourage those firms to redouble their efforts, lest their clients may come to doubt whether these firms are in fact using their ‘best endeavours’ to achieve the Target. The Centre stands ready to help,” he submitted.

CEO Gabriela Christian-Hare said that the start of this decade will be remembered as “one of the most turbulent periods in living memory, but it will also be remembered for how lawyers significantly escalated their efforts to support the most vulnerable members of our community”.

“The profession’s commitment to pro bono has been growing steadily over time. However, the significant growth in hours since 2019 is setting a new benchmark for pro bono assistance in Australia. The hours performed by some of the largest law firms are at record levels this year, reflecting a desire to further push the boundaries and have tangible and lasting social impact through pro bono work,” she outlined.

This said, Ms Christian-Hare added, while this age has served to further solidify the role of pro bono practice in a number of smaller law firms as well as in-house teams around the country, “there is considerable room for growth in both cohorts”.

BigLaw firms

In FY21, 53 firms and ILPs of 50 or more FTE lawyers reported on their pro bono undertakings, for an average of 39.54 hours per lawyer, spread across just over 15,000 lawyers.

This was a jump from last year’s average of 36.4 hours per year for BigLaw lawyers, meaning lawyers at the big end of town did an average of three extra hours of pro bono in FY21.

However, just 22 BigLaw firms and ILPs (41.5 per cent) met or exceeded the 35-hour Target, albeit up from just 18 last year.

In FY22, 36 such firms expect they will meet the Target.

SME firms

This past financial year, 93 small law firms (i.e. fewer than 50 lawyers), accounting for almost 1,100 lawyers, reported an average of 41.2 pro bono hours per lawyer. This was “significantly up” from the 35.7 hours undertaken, on average, per lawyer in FY20, marking a 5.5 hour increase – or, almost a full working day.

Just 36 small firms met or exceeded the Target (39 per cent), up from 32 firms last year.

Next year, 66 small firms said they expect to meet the Target.

Individual practitioners and barristers

In FY21, 70 individuals reported over 5,000 pro bono hours, for an average of 70.18 hours. 42 individuals met or exceeded the Target, more than doubling last year’s figure of 20. Next year, 65 individual practitioners and barristers are expected to meet the Target.

In September 2020, Lawyers Weekly reported why conditions are increasingly ripe for sole practitioners to undertake pro bono work.

In-house teams

In June of last year, APBC opened the National Pro Bono Target to law departments, challenging them to provide at least 20 hours of pro bono legal services per lawyer per year. 10 in-house teams reported on their pro bono hours in FY21, across 69 FTE lawyers, and completed a total of 515 hours between them.

Three of the 10 teams met or exceeded the Target, and seven expect to do so in FY22.

Elsewhere, 17 individual in-house lawyers reported a total of 465.5 pro bono hours, with seven meeting or exceeding the Target and 16 of the 17 expecting to meet it next year.

Given that all of the in-house signatories signed up to the Target on or after 1 July 2020, the Centre did not calculate the average hours conducted per lawyer, “because of the distorting effect” that would result in signatories committing to the Target at different points in time. Such figures will instead be available in FY22.

Demographic breakdown

The Centre also measured pro bono hours undertaken in each Australian state and territory.

New South Wales accounted for 44 per cent of the hours reported by practitioners nationwide, in keeping with that state being home to 43 per cent of Australian lawyers (as per the 2020 National Profile of Solicitors).

Victoria, which has one in four (25 per cent) of Australia’s lawyers, completed 32 per cent of the nation’s pro bono hours in FY21, and Western Australia and the ACT also outperformed their respective sizes, completing 7.5 per cent and 3.16 per cent of Australia’s pro bono hours this year respectively, while accounting for 7 per cent and 3 per cent of lawyers.

Other jurisdictions underperformed relative to their proportion of national solicitors however: Queensland, which has 16 per cent of lawyers, reported 11.5 per cent of pro bono hours; South Australia, which is home to 5 per cent of the nation’s lawyers, did just 1.3 per cent of the total pro bono hours. The Northern Territory completed 0.36 per cent and Tasmania undertook 0.05 per cent of the nation’s total hours, even though both account for 1 per cent of the nation’s lawyers.

‘Considerable room for growth’ in Australia’s pro bono undertakings
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