Whilst the number of small firms committing to the Australian Pro Bono Centre Target has increased over the last year, there is still room for improvement.
As previously reported by Lawyers Weekly, the Australian Pro Bono Centre (APBC) has just released the 14th Annual Performance Report of the National Pro Bono Target (Target), which shows that Australian lawyers completed a “record-breaking” 641,966 hours of pro bono legal work in the 2021 financial year.
This, the centre proclaimed, is “by far” the highest number of pro bono hours ever reported by signatories to the Target, marking an increase of 16 per cent from FY20 and a 36 per cent increase from FY19.
Over the last financial year, 93 small law firms (i.e. fewer than 50 lawyers) made up of almost 1,100 lawyers reported an average of 41.2 pro bono hours per lawyer – up from 35.7 hours undertaken per lawyer in FY20.
Australian Pro Bono Centre CEO Gabriela Christian-Hare said that pro bono work could help SME and boutique firms attract and retain talent – and is one of the reasons why more small firms have been undertaking more pro bono work.
“The pandemic has made many of us stop and reflect on our career and question whether it’s providing us with enough meaning. Lawyers are no different – they will stay at firms and seek work at firms that provide them with those opportunities.
“Particularly as younger graduates join the workforce; pro bono is and will increasingly be a tool to attract and retain the best talent. Small firms are often closely connected to their local communities, and giving lawyers at those firms the opportunity to make a difference at the grassroots level will make their people feel empowered and re-energised,” she said.
“Recording and reporting those hours as Target signatories also enables small firms to better track the difference they are making.”
Ms Christian-Hare said the APBC was “delighted” to see an increasing number of smaller firms signing up to the National Pro Bono Target, with the increased hours per lawyer equalling almost a full working day at 5.5 hours.
“We think this is attributable to a number of factors. The centre embarked on a large push in FY2021 to encourage more small firms and individual lawyers across Australia to sign up to the Target. We have also observed that increasing numbers of small firms are recognising the significant benefits that pro bono work can bring,” she said.
“Additionally, client expectations are having an impact – in particular, the pro bono conditions in Commonwealth and State government tender arrangements in a number of jurisdictions around the country are continuing to have an important influence on the number of small firms signing up to the Target and the quantity of pro bono work they undertake.
“It’s also important to note that small firms have a long and proud history of providing pro bono work in their local communities. This has often been done in a more ad hoc and quiet way. Now, as awareness of the Target spreads within the small firm cohort and client expectations grow, a rising number of these firms are deciding to report on that pro bono work in a more structured and recognised manner,” Ms Christian-Hare added.
Whilst upwards of 90 small firms logged official pro bono hours, only 36 met or exceeded the target, rising from 32 firms last year. Next year, 66 small firms said they expect to meet the Target. For firms looking to meet the Target next year, Ms Christian-Hare advised them to use the APBC’s resources and reach out for extra assistance if needed.
“It has been a difficult time for many small firms, some of which have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, some firms that usually undertake pro bono work at community legal centres or other community clinics have found it more challenging to meet the Target, as some clinics have been closed for long periods over the past 18 months,” she submitted.
“And a significant number of small firms are relatively new signatories who will need more time to find their feet. However, it is clear that some small firms are not using their best efforts.”
Moving forward, the centre has a range of helpful tools and information on its website, developed with help from the pro bono community. Additionally, Ms Christian-Hare said the APBC plans to roll out a “Buddy Program” as well.
“We have developed a range of guides and manuals that give firms helpful and practical suggestions about how to set up and grow their pro bono practices,” she said.
“Over the past year or so, the centre has been running a successful pilot of a Buddy Program, where small firms with emerging pro bono practices are partnered with more experienced pro bono providers to receive informal mentoring. In 2022, we plan to roll out the program to a wider range of firms, so we would encourage small firms to get in touch with the centre to get involved. A number of the more established practices have put their hands up to be mentors.”