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Smaller firms can punch above their weight in pro bono

user iconFelicity Nelson 14 March 2016 NewLaw

Size should not hold firms back from building a strong pro bono practice, according to the CSR and pro bono coordinator at Wotton + Kearney.

Partner Heidi Nash-Smith told Lawyers Weekly that boutiques can “absolutely” direct a lot of attention towards pro bono, even if they lack the resources to run entire programs on their own.

Smaller firms can access support from the pro bono legal community, including from other firms and the Australian Pro Bono Centre.

“There is a lot of support out there […] to help you develop your program,” she said. “Even if you are a smaller firm, you are not on your own.”

Boutiques can also collaborate with referral agencies such as Justice Connect, she continued. These agencies can provide assistance with training and supervision that cannot always be resourced in-house.

“I think we've got a professional responsibility as lawyers to use our legal skills to help those less fortunate,” said Ms Nash-Smith.

However, pro bono can also provide real benefits to the business through increased staff morale and retention.

“[Social justice] is one of the things that drives you to get into law in the first place,” she said.

“[Law graduates] look at what firms have pro bono programs and what sorts of opportunities there are to get involved. And so I think it's important from a firm perspective that you have those programs to attract and retain staff.”

Pro bono also offers opportunities for lawyers to grow their skills base, she continued.

“Look at your communication skills – it is one thing to communicate with a commercial client. It can take quite different skills to communicate with a pro bono client,” she said.

“It’s extremely beneficial for lawyers to have that one-on-one connection with a pro bono client. You need to be able to explain things and interview in a way which is more challenging than it can be for a commercial client.”

Wotton + Kearney was launched in 2002 as a specialist insurance law firm. It now has 100 lawyers across its Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth offices.

The firm started a formal pro bono program in 2012 and has continued to grow its initiatives since then.

The firm was heavily involved in refugee matters and helped with judicial review of around 14 claims for asylum in collaboration with Justice Connect.

“We are looking to get involved now that matters are going back to judicial review again,” said Ms Nash-Smith.

The firms has also been involved in assisting members of the Stolen Generation locate details about their time in out-of-home care and launch claims for compensation.

“We have also been putting together as part of that project a toolkit to help others in NSW find and locate information about clients' time in out-of-home care,” continued Ms Nash-Smith.

“Our experience is that it's a very straight-forward process.”

Wotton + Kearney has a wide-ranging pro bono program and assesses matters on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the firm has the expertise and capacity and whether there is a public interest angle, according to Ms Nash-Smith.

The firm often provides advice pro bono to not-for-profit organisations in relation to litigation or disputes.

While Wotton + Kearney lawyers are specialised in insurance law, there is often a conflict of interest in acting pro bono in this area, according to Ms Nash-Smith.

Having a dedicated pro bono partner has allowed the firm to grow its program, she added.

Ms Nash-Smith is a finalist in the Partner of the Year Awards. Winners will be announced at a black-tie gala on 28 April at the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth – tickets on sale now.

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