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Pro bono central to longevity of law firms, says lawyer and award-winning novelist

Here, Australian lawyer and Miles Franklin Literary Award winner Shankari Chandran highlights the importance of undertaking pro bono work and how the rule of law and the creation of healthy communities are linked.

user iconMalavika Santhebennur 03 January 2024 Big Law
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Ms Chandran spent 10 years as the head of pro bono and community affairs at global law firm Allen & Overy in London. She is also an award-winning novelist, having recently won the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award for her book Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens.

While completing her law degree, Ms Chandran devoted a significant amount of time volunteering at community law centres during weekends and days off.

Before pursuing her passion in the not-for-profit sector and justice, however, Ms Chandran cut her teeth in BigLaw firms such as Phillips Fox (now DLA Piper) before moving to Allen & Overy in London and joining its mergers and acquisitions team as a solicitor.


After working 100-hour weeks for a year in this role, she was given the opportunity to be seconded into and develop Allen & Overy’s pro bono program.

“I started in the London office and developed their nascent program from the London office to span all of their offices around the world because, at the time, the firm was rapidly expanding,” she said on an episode of The Lawyers Weekly Show.

“Therefore, I felt the pro bono program should rapidly expand with it. We were able to utilise the skills and the resources of lawyers around the world, connect them to the not-for-profit organisations and vulnerable clients in the cities in which we operated, and then use our skills to have better impacts for them in the justice space.”

Ms Chandran has also worked in Australian law firm Ashurst, where she collaborated with them to manage its national law reform program.

While she is not currently as closely connected to the law firms as she used to be, she said that during her tenure at Ashurst, the commitment to pro bono work by Australian and global law firms was “inspirational”.

Recent findings by the Australian Pro Bono Centre (APBC) showed that pro bono hours continue to rise in Australia, but there is room for growth among the nation’s biggest law firms.

“I think there’s always a tension within corporate organisations … there is always a tension between what is perceived to be the opportunity costs and the trade-offs of directing your time towards billable work versus non-billable work, what’s fundamentally non-billable,” Ms Chandran noted.

“At the same time, I think that there are the right people in the right places of power that understand that the social capital that is created both internally and externally by investing in pro bono programs is remarkable and is incredibly valuable for the longevity of the law firm, and for its position as an employer of choice. I think law firms are onto that.”

She said she admired how many law firms are prepared to dedicate money and time into justice.

“The complexity of that is something that I really enjoy and value, particularly because you’re talking to some of the greatest minds around. If you can help them go to the places of greatest need, then there’s no better job,” she emphasised.

Building communities for justice

At the heart of Ms Chandran’s careers as a pro bono lawyer and a novelist has been a sense of creating communities.

She credited this approach to the way her parents raised her and being a part of a close-knit Sri Lankan Tamil community that is motivated to help itself and the people around it, she said.

“I remember my father telling me when I was young that he used to pray that he would be given the opportunity to be useful. It’s such a funny thing to pray for,” Ms Chandran recounted.

“This is when he was struggling to get a job in Australia, where the white Australia policy had just ended and his qualifications and his place in this country was uncertain and he was getting jobs that were well beneath him. That would often frighten and stress him.

“He would say, ‘I would just pray for the opportunity to be useful’. That comes from their community or our community. When communities are strong, they are safe. When they are unified but have space for a multiplicity of identities and perspectives and views and religions and languages, they are safe and stable.”

Similarly, she emphasised the link between the importance and protection of the rule of law and the creation of robust and healthy communities.

“I do think that there’s a reason why they talk about health justice and education justice and so on, because actually, underneath it all is justice, and beneath all of that is community,” she concluded.

To listen to Shankari Chandran’s full episode, click here.

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