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Survey doesn’t aim to name and shame
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Survey doesn’t aim to name and shame

The head of Australia’s foremost pro bono body said a major survey on the performance of Australia’s large law firms was anonymous to encourage more pro bono work.

The final report of the National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey was released by the National Pro Bono Resource Centre (NPBRC) today (25 January).

Thirty-six of the 51 firms with more than 50 lawyers participated in the survey, including the nine largest national firms.

An interim report released last October found that, for the 2012 financial year, the average number of pro bono hours per lawyer per year had increased when compared to the last survey two years ago (from 29 hours per lawyer per annum in 2010 to 29.9 hours in 2012).

The interim report also found that the nine firm respondents with more than 450 lawyers did an average of 38 hours of pro bono work per lawyer. That compared to an average of 20.4 hours for mid-tier firms (250 to 450 lawyers) and 15.7 hours for small firms (50 to 250 lawyers).

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, the director of the NPBRC, John Corker (pictured), defended his organisation’s decision not to release individual firm statistics. By contrast, the Federal Government’s Legal Services Expenditure Report for 2011-12, released in December, did list the amount of pro bono hours performed by law firms that are on the Government’s multi-use list.

Twenty-three of the 36 respondents to the NPBRC report are on the multi-use list.

“We have always taken the view that it is better to encourage rather than to name and shame because, ultimately, this [pro bono work] is a voluntary activity,” said Corker. “We publicly release the names of firms that have signed up to the National Pro Bono Aspirational Target [of 35 hours of pro bono work per lawyer per year], but the results of signatories are not published.

“We think that is the best way to encourage pro bono.”

According to the Federal Government’s report, DLA Piper is the best-performing large law firm, with an average of 56.5 hours of pro bono work per lawyer in 2011-12. Other large law firms that did more than 40 hours of pro bono work per lawyer in 2011-12 included Gilbert + Tobin, Ashurst, Clayton Utz, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Baker & McKenzie and Allens.

Large firms that did less than 20 hours of pro bono work per lawyer included Allen & Overy, Gadens, Herbert Geer, HWL Ebsworth, Piper Alderman and Sparke Helmore.

A number of firms did not record their pro bono hours.

Merging values
The NPBRC report featured 10 firms that have merged or joined with another firm in the last two years.

Four respondents reported that the merger had no effect on their firm’s pro bono program. However, one firm expressed concerns at the “dilution of firm values following [the] merger”.

Of the 12 firms in the survey with offices overseas, 10 of them reported that the Australian office does more pro bono work when compared to international offices.

There was evidence in the report that a more competitive large law firm market and the recent dip in transactional work did adversely affect firms’ pro bono commitment.

Several firms named “lack of capacity as the firm becomes more leanly staffed” and “being busy with fee-paying clients” as threats to its pro bono program.

Partner and management support was cited as the most important factor in the success of a pro bono program. DLA Piper, Clayton Utz and Ashurst, three of the best-performing firms, all have dedicated pro bono partners.

“It is almost essential that you have one or two pro bono champions within the partnership or the senior management of the firm,” said Corker, who said a firm’s choice about whether to appoint a pro bono partner depended on the maturity of a firm’s pro bono program.

“If you are down the other end of the development pathway then partner input is vital, but that can be as a member of an internal pro bono committee.

“It still needs that sort of leadership within the firm to take it forward.”

Forty per cent of the firms surveyed said that the National Aspirational Target was not relevant to their firm’s pro bono program, and more than 60 per cent of pro bono work by large law firms was for organisations rather than individuals.

Four of the top five areas of law and practice were most pro bono services were provided; governance, deductible gift recipient applications, commercial agreements and incorporations, were only relevant to organisations.

The next NPBRC report is due in 2014.

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