Pro bono work greatly benefits the community, but it also benefits the legal profession itself. Young lawyers in particular can reap the rewards of undertaking pro bono work
Lawyers have the opportunity to participate in one of the world's great professions. They have earned this right to practise law through hard work and dedication to the profession.
However, the legal profession also has the responsibility to make "access to justice" a reality for all. Access to justice for all of the Australian community is fundamental to the maintenance of the rule of law and to the stability of the community at large.
The Australian legal profession has a rich tradition of providing pro bono legal services to areas of the community most in need.
Figures released in September showed that Australia's largest law firms undertook $48.5 million of pro bono work in the past year. According to the National Pro Bono Resource Centre study, the nation's top 25 firms delivered a total of nearly 200,000 hours of pro bono legal work during the year. In other words, on any given week, the lawyers in the top 25 firms are giving 3740 hours of their time for free.
This is an impressive result. It is nearly as much as the $55 million spent by both state and Federal governments on community legal centres in Australia in the same period.
Of course, contributions varied greatly between the firms. Some firms averaged less than five hours per lawyer per year with those at the other extreme providing more than 90 hours per lawyer per year - that's more than two weeks of pro bono work a year for each lawyer.
And it's not just the big end of town that is putting its hands up. The statistics for the legal profession as a whole are very encouraging.
Figures suggest that about $250 million of pro bono work was performed by Australian solicitors in 2007 - the equivalent of one week per year for each solicitor in this country. The Australian Bars also support the community through considerable pro bono assistance by their members. That's an admirable commitment by the legal profession to dedicate such a significant portion of their time to "working for free" in the interests of the community.
Pro bono work greatly benefits the community, but it also benefits the legal profession itself. Young lawyers in particular can reap the rewards of undertaking pro bono work.
Not only are they being given an opportunity to make a significant difference in people's lives, they're enhancing their own skills and career prospects in the process.
Pro bono work allows lawyers to develop their legal and managerial skills. Lawyers conducting pro bono matters often have greater control of a whole case than they do when working in their normal legal fields. They therefore have the opportunity to develop strategy and maintain an overview of the whole case.
Assisting pro bono clients can also broaden lawyers' communication and inter-personal skills beyond those required to deal with commercial clients. Lawyers develop confidence as they recognise their abilities to assist clients and extend their skills. This transfers positively to the way they approach their other work.
Pro bono projects allow lawyers from different practice groups to work together as a team, in creative and collaborative ways. Pro bono can also increase job satisfaction.
It has been suggested that retention rates increase as lawyers get more varied work, more satisfaction from and more control over their work. Anecdotally, firms in Australia and abroad have spoken of improved morale resulting from the firm's pro bono program.
The virtues of pro bono work will be discussed at length at the up-coming Access to Justice and Pro Bono Conference, to be held in Sydney on 14 and 15 November 2008.
A joint venture between the Law Council of Australia and the National Pro Bono Resource Centre, this year's conference will explore how various groups can work more closely together and collaborate in projects and programs that will address access to justice issues
For more information, go to www.a2j08.com.au