Two of the profession’s leading pro bono advocates have agreed with the majority of voters in a Lawyers Weekly poll that pro bono work should be a personal choice for each lawyer.
“The essence of pro bono work is essentially voluntary and if you make it mandatory you lose a lot of that honourable nature,” John Corker (pictured right), the head of the National Pro Bono Resource Centre (NPBRC), told Lawyers Weekly, adding that ‘no, it should be a personal choice for each lawyer’ was the response he voted for in the poll.
Just over 41 per cent of respondents to the poll, which asked: Should all lawyers have to do a minimum amount of pro bono work each year?, went for the same option as Corker; with one-third (32.5%) responding: ‘Yes, it is part of what a lawyer does’.
“I think [the poll] was probably asking the wrong question,” said David Hillard (pictured below), the pro bono partner at Clayton Utz, when speaking to Lawyers Weekly.
“[I read it as] asking whether pro bono should be compulsory for every lawyer ... if the question was whether pro bono is something every lawyer should do ... I think the results would be much more strongly in favour of the idea.
“I don’t think it should be compulsory ... but at the same time it should be encouraged as something that every lawyer should be doing.”
The poll received almost 1400 responses, the most responses ever received by a Lawyers Weekly poll. The smallest number of respondents (11.2%) said ‘No, lawyers already have enough demands on their time’, and 15.1 per cent said ‘They should but it’s not always possible’.
The importance of pro bono work to the profession was something both Corker and Hillard were anxious to highlight.
“It’s really important that firms have in place systems to support pro bono and to make sure that it’s seen as real work that’s genuinely recognised,” said Hillard.
Corker said he doesn’t think it is necessary for firms to have pro bono partners to have an effective pro bono practice, but added: “You need leaders within firms that will ... speak up about that value [of pro bono].”
The National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey, which was released last October, showed that large firms did, on average, almost 18 hours more pro bono work per lawyer per year (38 hours) than mid-tier firms (20.4 hours).
Corker said at the time that there was no excuse for smaller firms to do less pro bono work, and he said proof of that is that it is often sole practitioners and large law firms that do the most pro bono work.
“It’s the ones in between that have the little bit more difficulty ... but what we’ve seen in the last three or four years is the pro bono ethos moving into the mid-tier firms.”
A number of mid tiers have now signed up to the NPBRC’s Aspirational Pro Bono Target of 35 hours of pro bono work per lawyer per year, he added.
The arrival of global firms in Australia and a tightening legal market are two developments that have the potential to impact the amount of time lawyers have to dedicate to pro bono work.
“Lawyers will feel that it’s more difficult to do pro bono work if ... they’re getting disadvantaged for it,” said Hillard. ”I think it’s those firms that have got really strong pro bono cultures ... that are going to continue doing pro bono work in the good times and the bad times.”
He added that Clayton Utz will exceed an average of 50 hours of pro bono work per lawyer for the first time this year.
Corker added that the internationalisation of Australian firms has also had an impact – both positive and negative – on firms’ pro bono performance.
“They’re merging with firms with different cultures ... some have a sympathetic pro bono culture, some do not,” he said.
Putting people first
Last year’s pro bono survey also revealed that more than 60 per cent of pro bono work by law firms is done for organisations, something Hillard said he would like to see change.
“The majority of our clients are people ... if we’re going to talk about pro bono being fundamentally about access to justice then that for me really speaks primarily about providing assistance to people.”
However, Hillard added: “We certainly have the strongest pro bono culture in the world I would think outside of the US ... and I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit for the sort of leadership that’s been shown [in Australia] in the pro bono space.”
Check the Lawyers Weekly video page next week for an extended video interview with John Corker