SEEKING TO dissolve the view that lawyers are greedy and only do work to get richer, Arnold Bloch Leibler has released a public interest law audit report railing against the “misconceptions” surrounding lawyers and work that benefits society.
Acknowledging that the firm had a strong ethos, Arnold Bloch Leibler public interest law partner Peter Seidel said the firm hoped to “encourage more debate and discussion about law firms committing to public interest law work” by being direct and open about the firm’s successes in this area.
On another level, the firm aims to debunk the perception that lawyers are only in the profession for the money. “This whole misconception is undeserved,” Seidel said.
Late last year, Arnold Bloch Leibler’s personnel were asked to complete various audit reports aimed at documenting all public interest law work undertaken over the 2002/03 financial year. Partners and staff were asked to assess a number of factors in their responses, including whether it had been a matter of broad legal significance.
Also, personnel were asked whether many people were affected by the outcome of the matter and whether a fundamental justice question was at stake.
It was discovered that the equivalent of approximately $1.2 million was devoted by the firm to public interest law work, or in excess of 3,500 hours.
The firm has long been dedicated to general cultural, social justice and environmental organisations, as well as being a supporter of Jewish charitable organisations. “We believe there is a strong cultural fit between our firm and indigenous causes,” Seidel told Lawyers Weekly.
Approximately 40 per cent of the firm’s public interest law work in the two year period to July 2003 had concerned social and general charitable initiatives. About a quarter of their public interest law commitment had been directed towards supporting Indigenous causes. Environmental causes made up 11 per cent and Jewish causes 19 per cent.
“When the firm started 50 years ago most of our initial clients were escaping war-torn Europe. So there is a sense of justice, of maintaining integrity and a natural resonance with indigenous causes because of this,” he said.
Pressed as to whether the firm had analysed what actual public benefits had been provided by the pro bono work they were doing, Seidel did not explain whether any system had been put in place to determine the more needy clients. However, he said that “when representing people who are marginalised, we don’t force our view upon them, we assist to give the outcomes they want”.
“We listen to our clients, we listen to them to support them with ground-up solutions,” Seidel added.
Admitting that some people may see this as rhetoric, he added that “it is not, the motivation of the report is to challenge all of us to do more of this work”.
The firm provided financial support to community causes through donations and by providing academic sponsorship. It stated this was done as part of its general responsibility to society, which it treats separately from its public law contributions.
Pointing out that it was hard to say whether Australian firms do enough public interest work, Seidel said they “do a lot”, but that “it could be better harnessed”.
“We understand our duty to civil society and we want to reinforce this in the community.
“When we measure what we’ve done we set the bar for others, including ourselves,” Seidel said.