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Australian pro bono market shows signs of growing up

Australian pro bono market shows signs of growing up

While Australian firms are at a "different stages of maturity" in their development of pro bono, the Australian market has been recognised as one of the world's strongest pro bono cultures.

According to the Australian Pro Bono Centre, the provision of legal pro bono services has enjoyed a strong tradition in Australia, with law firms beginning to adopt a structured approach to the practice about 20 years ago.

Among the various structural models for the provision of pro bono services employed in Australia, centre director John Corker cited clinics, where lawyers can provide direct advice to clients, outreach programs, law reform work and CLEs.

“In terms of models, pro bono really benefits from lateral thinking about how to tackle a problem, in conjunction with some sort of community partner,” Mr Corker told Lawyers Weekly.

Increasingly, Australia’s medium-size law firms are stepping into the pro bono arena, he added.

“If you look at those mid-tiers, who are expanding rapidly, six out of 10 grew by 20 per cent in their pro bono services last year,” Mr Corker said.

By surveying the growing number of firms that participate in the National Pro Bono Aspirational Target (NPAT) scheme, the Pro Bono Resource Centre is in a position to track the practice of pro bono nationally.

Mr Corker said that only a quarter of those mid-tiers surveyed by the Pro Bono Resource Centre last year met the national 35-hour pro bono target.

“But then again, some of the larger firms are up round 50-60 hours [per lawyer].”

“You have a whole spectrum of Australian firms that are in a different place in that progression. There are stages of maturity in a pro bono program,” he said.

On a global scale, Australia measures up well against other countries, according to Thomson Reuters Foundation legal director Nicholas Glicher.

Mr Glicher is overseeing a pro bono survey that aims to identify global and regional trends in the pro bono market place.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation TrustLaw Index of Pro Bono is in its third year of data collection. It aims to assess pro bono work being done by law firms on a country-by-country basis.

“Australia is a global leader in the way that pro bono is done as well as the engagement of law firms," he said.

“What we want to do is design a tool that shares the expertise of market leaders to help emerging firms who are new to the concept of institutionalising pro bono.”

Some of the recent emerging pro bono markets to show enthusiasm for participating include Mexico, Columbia, Argentina and Chile. Kenyan and Nigerian law firms have also shown a strong interest, Mr Glicher said.

He suggested the survey would help emerging markets learn from more sophisticated pro bono cultures.

“Pro bono cannot ever be sufficiently resourced but if a structure and resources are dedicated to it, it can do well. For example, if a medium-size firm in Botswana wants to understand the different ways to engage from other markets with much more sophisticated pro bono attitudes and programs – and see the different ways they can approach it – the firm doesn’t have to be wandering around looking for an orphanage for example [to partner with], but rather it can use its resources more strategically,” Mr Glicher said.

“Pro bono is growing up and within this international movement there is a domestic favour in every market and every market is looking to service the needs in that market."

Mr Corker said that conveying information to emerging markets interested in pro bono practice was an important part of the “collegiate international movement".

“There is a global pro bono movement and Australian firms have shown leadership. We are happy to share our expertise. The objective is to encourage legal providers to meet unmet legal needs in a strategic way.”

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