It is becoming easier for corporate counsel to undertake pro bono legal work, and 2020 is the year to get involved, argue two senior professionals.
General counsel across the board have to balance many competing interests, perhaps none more important than putting the needs of a business or organisation first. But, simultaneously, such leaders of legal teams are responsible for fostering a good workplace environment whereby, for example, lawyers feel encouraged to undertake pro bono work if they so wish, muses Gabriela Christian-Hare.
Speaking recently on The Lawyers Weekly Show, Ms Christian-Hare – who is the CEO of the Australian Pro Bono Centre – said there are clearly challenges involved for GCs in ensuring the business’ needs are met but simultaneously allowing lawyers to flourish in their own ways.
When asked how best GCs can strike the right balance, she said: “In-house teams tend to be incredibly busy, as law firm lawyers are too. I think it’s about selling the benefits of lawyers in their teams to be involved. I mean, of course there are benefits for the ultimate recipient of the pro bono services, but there [are] benefits for the individual lawyers involved as well.”
“There’s a really interesting tension in using your existing skills in a different context. [The Pro Bono Centre gets] wonderful feedback from in-house corporate counsel who are used to just servicing their organisation but then go out and work with refugees or apply their corporate finance skills to a not-for-profit or a charity,” she reflected.
“It just leads to a lot of happiness and we know that it can lead to more loyalty to an organisation if they’re providing those sorts of opportunities. It’s really important to see this as a key part of CSR: legal pro bono is just one way of bolstering a corporate social responsibility practice.”
Immediation COO, general counsel and director Claire Bibby supported this. Speaking on The Corporate Counsel Show, she said that GCs had to recognise that the undertaking of pro bono work isn’t just an individual journey, it is also a company one.
“From an individual perspective, I have very much encouraged my legal teams in the past to pursue pro bono opportunities, be that within their general day-to-day hours or their private hours. For me, I think lawyers are smart enough and responsible enough to know how to balance their time between their paid employment and their voluntary employment, and I’ve never had anybody ever cross over that line with me,” she recounted.
“So that’s why I say it’s an individual journey, but it’s also a corporate journey, because there [are] also a number of policies and practices that corporations have, and often corporations have very good relationships with various institutions. One of the best opportunities I’ve had was through Layne Beachley’s Aim For The Stars Foundation, which came about because my employer at the time made a corporate donation, but then I used my private time to become a mentor, and I’ve continued that relationship now with Layne for, I think we’re now into the third or fourth year, and it’s something that for me is very satisfying, but it was a really nice mesh of both personal and corporate expectations and desires at the time.”
There are many in-house lawyers, Ms Bibby continued, who want to step up and provide more pro bono services, but “quite often they’re reluctant to do so when they’re in-house, because they either lack the resources or the support”.
“Alternatively, they have concerns about the extent of their practicing certificate and the extent that they may be exposed personally,” she posited.
But there are ways that law firms can assist their in-house collaborators, she noted.
“I’ve been encouraging external law firms to reach out to their internal lawyer clients and invite them to come on the journey with the firm where it’s possible to do so, because the firms obviously have huge infrastructures and some wonderful practices,” she said.
“To bring an in-house lawyer or two along on that journey can be a really great value add that perhaps a number of external law firms aren’t thinking about when they’re thinking of, ‘What else can I do for my in-house legal client?’”
Ms Christian-Hare said the Pro Bono Centre encourages all corporate counsel to be involved with pro bono work in the same way they would encourage private practice lawyers.
“Working as an in-house corporate counsel – and I could say this from experience – involves its own unique challenges and we’re fully conscious of that, and so what we suggest to in-house corporate counsel is to be very mindful of those potential constraints,” she said.
“In my personal view, we’ve been seeing a lot of growth in corporate pro bono across the board, actually, skilled volunteering. When it gets to the point, when that skilled volunteering becomes a more accepted and encouraged part of working within big corporates in particular, that I think will trickle down to the in-house corporate teams as well and the legal teams. And I think we’ll see more buy-in then.”