Lawyers giving something for nothing? Peter Turner, chief executive of the Australian Corporate Lawyers Association, looks at how and why in-house lawyers are taking on the pro bono cause.
Increasingly, the practice of law in Australia carries with it the right and privilege of performing legal services on a free or substantially reduced fee basis, for people or organisations unable to afford the full cost of a lawyer’s services – pro bono work.
While there is no one accepted definition of “pro bono”, in essence, the concept involves the voluntary provision of services to disadvantaged persons or organisations that enhance access to justice and/or promote the public interest. These lofty ideals go to the root of professionalism involving the spirit of lifelong service to others, the very foundation stone of classical professions including law.
While pro bono work by lawyers in general practice – in particular those employed within the larger law firms – has long been an accepted and important part of the Australian legal services scene, pro bono work by in-house lawyers employed in corporations or in government departments or agencies is of more recent origin.
Broadly speaking, it is only in the last decade or two that in-house legal departments have reached the point that they can look beyond the demands of day-to-day practice and reach out to assist needy organisations and members of the general public. Regrettably, the regulatory regime applicable to Australia’s in-house lawyers has not made it any easier.
In order to perform pro bono work, in-house counsel must have both an appropriate practising certificate and adequate professional indemnity insurance. These are matters which are regulated on a State and Territory basis and the rules in each jurisdiction are different. Organisations such as The National Pro Bono Resource Centre, the Australian Corporate Lawyers Association and some of the law societies have made sterling efforts recently to try to simplify and rationalise the rules but unfortunately, there is still a long way to go.
Australia’s in-house counsel should be free to undertake pro bono work as required and there should be appropriate rules for the conduct of such work by in-house counsel across the country. Regulatory impediments which prevent or restrict in-house counsel wishing to perform pro bono work from doing so must be removed.