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Large firms bolster pro bono efforts

Large firms bolster pro bono efforts

If all is well that ends well, then the global financial crisis had a positive impact on large Australian law firms, and theit contributions to society.

IF all is well that ends well, then the global financial crisis had a positive impact on large Australian law firms, and theit contributions to society. 

Large Australian law firms have continued their strong commitment to pro bono legal work, despite the significant economic pressures of the past two years, a new report has found.

The National Pro Bono Resource Centre has revealed that

Those large firms that are signatories to the National Pro Bono Aspirational Target generally have performed more pro bono work for disadvantaged people and community non-profit organisations, than those firms who have not yet signed it.

The findings come from the Interim Report on the National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey, launched this week by the National Pro Bono Resource Centre for the National Access to Justice and Pro Bono Conference 2010 being held in Brisbane from 26 to 27 August 2010.

Whilst the number of fee-earners in the top 12 firms decreased by 13.3 per cent in the last two years, the amount of pro bono work which these firms performed for disadvantaged people and community non-profit organisations has grown during this same period, according to the findings.

“Pro Bono work is not some passing fad. Australia's large law firms have demonstrated a real commitment to making the legal system accessible for those who cannot afford legal representation and who cannot obtain Legal Aid" said John Corker, director of the Centre.

“Even while firms have had to tighten their belts, the amount of pro bono work which they are performing has continued to grow.”

Twenty nine of the 39 Australian firms with more than 50 lawyers responded to the survey, including all of the large national firms.

Twenty four of them provided data on pro bono hours per lawyer. Between them, their 10,410.3 full time equivalent lawyers in Australia undertook more than 322,000 hours of pro bono legal work in the 2009/2010 financial year3, or an average of 29 hours per lawyer.

“That’s equivalent to more than 178 lawyers working pro bono full-time for a year”, said Corker.

Contributions continued to vary greatly between the firms. Some firms averaged less than five hours per lawyer per year with those at the other extreme providing more than 70 hours per lawyer per year.

The firms that continue to make the most significant contributions have dedicated pro bono partners and pro bono coordinators in each office who help to ensure that a pro bono culture is fully integrated into the firm’s practice”, Corker said.

“One of the positive trends observed is that more mid-tier firms are beginning to embrace this approach.”

The Centre developed the National Pro Bono Aspirational Target in 2006, setting a voluntary goal for lawyers of at least 35 hours per lawyer per year. The third performance report on the Target was also released this week. The report confirms the transformative effect, which the Target has had on the pro bono culture of Australia's law firms, the Centre said in a statement.

“Not surprisingly, the firms with the highest pro bono contribution and lawyer participation rates are generally those which have signed up to the Target” said Corker.

On average, signatories to the Target compared to non-signatory firms, reported higher average pro bono hours per lawyer (37.8 v 18.6) and a higher level of pro bono participation by their lawyers (66.3 per cent v 42.4 per cent).

The number of lawyers signed up to the Target increased by 23.4 per cent in the past year and now covers 5,677 FTE legal professionals, being about 10% of the Australian legal profession. Target signatories now include 6 of the 8 largest Australian firms.

The third performance report reveals that it is the largest firms that perform more pro bono work per lawyer than smaller firms.

“Although the biggest firms collectively employed only one third of all lawyers reporting their Target performance, they provided more than half of the total pro bono contributions, or an average of 49.4 hours per lawyer per year, well above the law firm average,” said Corker.

“This is the second time there has been a national picture of the pro bono work of large and mid-tier law firms. We hope that firms will use this information to benchmark their contribution against their peers and review their pro bono programs.”


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