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Pro bono hours continue to rise, but ‘greater participation’ still needed from BigLaw firms

New findings show that Australian law firms have once again increased the volume of pro bono hours they undertake annually. However, there remains “room for growth” among the nation’s biggest legal practices — even if capacity is a “major constraint”.

user iconJess Feyder 01 March 2023 Big Law
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The Australian Pro Bono Centre (APBC) has released its eighth national Law Firm Pro Bono Survey Report, which has found strong increases in the pro bono community in the last two years. 

The survey indicates that the nation’s largest law firms recognise the benefits of pro bono legal work, over and above providing opportunities for lawyers to fulfil their professional obligation to help satisfy unmet legal need. This finding follows last year’s findings, which detailed the volume of hours worked by pro bono signatories and unpacked which members of the legal community, and which firms, were most involved. 

Three key results in the survey were noted, starting with the fact that the past year saw the highest number of pro bono hours on record — an average of 36.4 hours, up from 35.5 hours in 2020.


Secondly, it found there were more dedicated pro bono staff than ever before. In 2022, 81 per cent of responding firms indicated that they had at least one dedicated pro bono manager. Among the 10 largest firms, this figure was 100 per cent, more than double the number reported in 2020.

Increased recognition of the positive impacts of pro bono work was the third finding, with a wide range of firms reporting they enjoy positive impacts as a result of their pro bono practices, including opportunities for staff to develop additional skills, increased pride in the firm, increased staff satisfaction, and ability to attract new staff. 

“Despite these pleasing results, the 2022 survey indicates that there is still room for growth within the pro bono practices of large firms,” APBC said in a statement. 

The average pro bono participation rate by staff at responding firms was reported at only 57 per cent, a marginal decrease from 2020.

“This suggests that there are many individual practitioners in large law firms who are currently doing no pro bono legal work and who could benefit from more opportunities, encouragement, and incentives to do so,” APBC continued. 

“The 2022 survey results highlight how institutionalised pro bono involvement has become in Australia’s largest firms,” commented APBC chief executive Gabriela Christian-Hare.

“Pro bono participation is also increasingly expected of individual lawyers, with 85 per cent of firms recognising pro bono work in performance appraisals. 

“Firms are looking to lawyers’ pro bono participation when considering promotions, calculating bonuses and reviewing salaries,” she remarked. “We have seen record pro bono hours this year. In this unprecedented time in human history, firms are increasingly seeing the benefits of expanding their dedicated pro bono teams and providing lawyers in their firms with opportunities to use their talents and time to be part of the solution.”

Significantly, only 26 per cent of responding firms reported that they had worked with in-house counsel of a corporate or government client on a pro bono matter or project during the 2022 financial year.

APBC chair Phillip Cornwell added: “The centre has been encouraging in-house lawyer participation in pro bono for some years now. 

“Obstacles include nervousness about ‘diving in’, and concern at the difficulty of sourcing work, so it is time law firms seized the opportunity to bond with their clients by partnering with in-house lawyers on pro bono projects.”

“It has been a busy time, and law firms have cited capacity as a major constraint,” said Mr Cornwell. “Still, given the rewards of pro bono, I’d like to see more firms encouraging greater participation.”