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Commonwealth continues to reward pro bono under performance

The Commonwealth should make pro bono an obligation or reward the firms that use their best endeavours to meet or exceed the National Pro Bono Target, writes Jacqueline Burns.

user iconJacqueline (Jaci) Burns 26 September 2022 Politics
Commonwealth continues to reward pro bono under performance
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Author’s Note: All of the data referenced in this opinion piece is in the public domain.

Commonwealth government entities purportedly consider pro bono activities when determining which legal services provider to engage. On paper, panel firms are required to “use their best endeavours to meet or exceed the pro bono Target”. And yet in 2021, 34 out of 62 Whole of Australian Government (WoAG) panel firms missed the pro bono mark, including, once again, two of the government's top billers: HWL Ebsworth and Maddocks.

In September 2022, the Office of Legal Services Coordination in the Attorney-General's Department published its annual Legal Services Expenditure Report.


The report reveals that in the 2021 financial year, the Australian government spent $301.63 million on external lawyers, excluding the Australian Government Solicitor.

Back in 2019, 62 legal services providers were appointed to the WoAG Legal Services Panel. However, in FY2021, approximately 72 per cent of the Commonwealth's $301.63 million spend was paid to just 10 firms.

Legal services provider Per cent ( per cent)
Clayton Utz 16
Sparke Helmore 11
MinterEllison 10
Ashurst 7
King and Wood Mallesons 7
Norton Rose Fulbright 6
Maddocks 6
HWL Ebsworth 6
Mills Oakley 4
Other [over 150 providers] 27

In 2021, just 28 of the Commonwealth's 62 providers met or exceeded the pro bono Target (see Table below). 


Legal Services Provider

Pro bono hours per lawyer FY2021





Baker McKenzie


Beaumont Law


Clayton Utz


Colin Biggers & Paisley


Corrs Chambers Westgarth


Damian Lawyers


DLA Piper


Gilbert + Tobin


Griffin Legal


Griffith Hack


Herbert Smith Freehills


Holding Redlich


Johnson Winter & Slattery


King and Wood Mallesons/h2>


Lander & Rogers


LK Law Pty Ltd


Makinson d'Apice


Mills Oakley




Norton Rose Fulbright


Proximity Advisory Services


RBG Lawyers


Russell Kennedy Solicitors


Sparke Helmore


Terri Janke and Company


Thompson Cooper Lawyers


Two of the 34 providers that did not meet the Target — HWL Ebsworth and Maddocks — are among the Commonwealth's Top 10 external billers.

It is estimated in FY2021 that both HWL Ebsworth and Maddocks earned around $17 million from the Commonwealth, representing 6 per cent of its external legal spend (excluding the AGS).

The 2021 Australian Legal Sector Alliance (AusLSA) Member Report reveals Maddocks recorded 26.9 pro bono hours in the 2021 financial year, down from 33.15 hours the year prior. To be fair, Maddocks has recorded an average 30.15 pro bono hours since 2014.

HWL Ebsworth has not publicly disclosed its 2021 data and declined to share it. HWL Ebsworth did record 18.01 hours in 2020 and 13 hours in 2019.

WoAG providers recorded an average 30.58 pro bono hours per lawyer in 2021.

Commonwealth entities purportedly “consider providers' current and future pro bono activities and whether they are a signatory to the Target when determining which legal services provider to engage”.

Indeed, the Legal Services Expenditure Report states that legal services providers appointed to the WoAG panel were required to “use their best endeavours to meet or exceed the (35 hours of pro bono work per lawyer per annum) Target”.

But do they really?

Whether they perceive it to be an obligation or a moral duty, it's obvious which firms are committed to pro bono. Clayton Utz, Ashurst and Minter Ellison, all Top 10 Commonwealth government law firms, have exceeded the Target every financial year since at least 2014.

King & Wood Mallesons marginally missed the Target in 2018 but is now reporting double the WoAG panel's average.

Herbert Smith Freehills and DLA Piper, neither of which is being shown federal (Top 10) favour, have both smashed the Target since 2014.

Holding Redlich has made steady, positive progress for the past decade and achieved the Target in 2021.

And, as reported by Lawyers Weekly, Johnson Winter & Slattery grew its pro bono practice by 300 per cent in just one year.

If our government law firms aren't achieving the Target, it is for want of trying.

The Commonwealth should make pro bono an obligation or reward the firms that use their best endeavours to meet or exceed the Target.

Jacqueline (Jaci) Burns is the chief marketing officer at Market Expertise.

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