LAW FIRM contributions to pro bono work vary drastically in Australia, despite the top 25 law firms in Australia reaching $48.5 million in pro bono work over the last 12 months.
The news comes after a survey by the National Pro Bono Resource Centre, which has released its first report into the pro bono “aspirational target” of 35 hours per lawyer, per year — finding that firms who were signatories to the target generally have higher participation rates (74 per cent), and an average of 39.4 hours annually per lawyer.
The top 25 firms totalled 200,000 hours of pro bono legal work during the 12 months analysed, a result that John Corker, president of the National Pro Bono Resource Centre, said is nothing short of “impressive”.
But there is still cause for concern in the gap between the participation rates of firms. The range of contributions varied between 0.5 per cent and more than 3 per cent of total practice income — with the lowest law firms averaging between zero to five hours per lawyer per year, to the higher firms averaging more than 90 hours.
And of the law firms signed up to the aspirational target, Corker shared some concern over the signatory law firms that failed to document their results, with just 36 of the 58 signatories reporting. “We would have hoped for a few more signatories to report — which is the one obligation contained under the target — but that didn’t happen,” he said.
The number of lawyers participating in law firms also varied drastically, with some firms reporting 0 to 5 per cent of the lawyers participating and others claiming their figures were somewhere between 81 and 100 per cent.
Meanwhile co-ordinating pro bono work is also organised differently across firms. A reported 80 per cent of firms have a pro bono co-ordinator, and 16 per cent a pro bono partner — most of which have been appointed in the last three years.
Employment law provided the strongest area of law for pro bono services, followed by company and commercial law, incorporations law, and debt law. But only 24 per cent of firms were able to provide legal advice on a pro bono basis in domestic violence and criminal law matters.
The gap may soon impact on law firms tendering for work, after changes to legal outsourcing rules released last week now compel all Commonwealth agencies to consider if a firm is reaching voluntary pro bono targets when tendering legal services.
Corker said the centre’s reports will give law firms figures to benchmark themselves against. “It’s an opportunity for them to review their pro bono programs and look at improving them,” he said.