The latest report from the National Pro Bono Resource Centre (NPBRC) reveals that hours dedicated to pro bono work at law firm signatories of the Centre's "aspirational target" are on the increase.
When, in early 2006, the NPBRC introduced the idea of an "Aspirational Target" of hours that lawyers should aim to commit to each year, the plan seemed extremely ambitious.
Law firms wishing to sign up to the Target would need to ensure that their lawyers on average achieved at least 35 hours of pro bono work per year.
But over the last financial year lawyers covered by the Target have exceeded this ambition. In a report made public last Friday, the NPBRC revealed that lawyers who have signed up to the Target achieved an average of 41.9 hours of pro bono work over the last financial year, up from the average 39.8 hours of the year before.
However, only 41 of the 66 signatories (62 per cent) reported on their pro bono performance against the Target - a point that the NPBRC clarifies by indicating that they accounted for about 95 per cent of the total legal professionals covered by the Target.
John Corker, director of the National Pro Bono Resource Centre, said the report indicates the Target is working. He said the fact that many lawyers are exceeding the Target is "an impressive contribution to improving access to justice for many who are unable to obtain legal assistance elsewhere".
It's a giant leap forward for the profession, and for the NPBRC, which, in just a few short years, has managed to not only have 66 signatories for the Target covering about 5700 lawyers - including nine law firm signatories with more than 100 lawyers - but also to well and truly exceed the Target.
Corker said the seven of the nine large main law firms that exceeded the Target averaged 45.2 hours of pro bono work per lawyer over the period - jointly providing almost 180,000 hours.
Also impressive is the fact that, with the addition of some prominent firms as signatories to the Target, the number of lawyers covered has almost doubled since the last financial year. This increase could also be attributed to a commitment by the Commonwealth Government, which in July 2008 required all government agencies to take into consideration whether a firm was a signatory to the Target when procuring legal services.
"The Commonwealth is using its purchasing power to encourage pro bono legal services, whilst still embracing the voluntaristic ethic of pro bono," said Corker. "The Victorian Government tender scheme has also been successful in encouraging firms to provide pro bono. It's time for other governments to introduce similar schemes."
While the NPBRC is quick to point out that the Target is well and truly voluntary, participants must sign a Statement of Principles outlining their commitment to aspire to the 35 hours of pro bono legal work per lawyer per year. Signatories are then required to report back to the centre on the performance against the Target, with the centre, in turn, promising to publish performance information within three months of the end of each financial year.