National Pro Bono Day is a perfect time to reflect on our privilege as legal professionals, our ability to make a difference to the disadvantaged and the voiceless in our society and how pro bono provides us with the opportunity to become better lawyers.
When I was admitted to this profession, Chief Justice Speigelman instructed us that as lawyers it was our duty to speak for the unpopular and give voice to those who have none. For many, the reason we chose to be lawyers was to help people.
Law firms are businesses but lawyers are professionals with an important duty as guardians of the rule of law. Fundamental to that is providing access to justice for everyone in our community. Through using the resources of a successful business and the passion of the people that work there, a firm’s pro bono practice goes some way to realising that goal.
As Hall & Wilcox’s pro bono practice has grown we have been able to use the skills of our people to assist refugees, persons with disabilities, the elderly, persons with mental illness and everyday Australians who cannot afford legal services, to access the law. We have also helped and partnered with many organisations which exist to assist the disadvantaged. By supporting these organisations with their legal problems they can focus on the important task of helping the disadvantaged in our community.
It is not, however, only the clients that benefit from the pro bono practice. Lawyers, particularly more junior ones, find that pro bono provides variety and more control over their work. It allows them to develop legal and managerial skills in ways their day-to-day role may not provide. Assisting pro bono clients also may broaden their communication and interpersonal skills beyond those required to deal with commercial clients.
Pro bono projects allow lawyers to work across practice groups and offices. This helps build strong internal relationships and strengthens the firm and its culture. One hallmark of our culture at Hall & Wilcox is ‘better together’ and the pro bono practice has truly brought people from different sections and offices together to work for the public good.
There are often opportunities for joint projects with corporate clients via pro bono, allowing the firm to nurture and build relationships with existing clients. There are also opportunities for in-house counsel employed by corporate clients to work in the firm’s pro bono clinics.
The above contributes to helping to increase job satisfaction and may assist with retention. It helps to improve the morale of the firm. The increased confidence of lawyers realising their ability to master a variety of work as well as the new skills obtained transfers positively to how they deal with their commercial work.
In a competitive legal market, a strong pro bono practice is a means for a firm to differentiate itself from competitors. Increasingly, new recruits inquire about pro bono practices and expect firms to have a social conscience reflected in their pro bono practices.
Some clients look to retain law firms which commit to pro bono, particularly government clients. Some major corporations in Australia are starting to do the same.
Thinking beyond commercial opportunities, and about how relationships can be strengthened through pro bono opportunities is a win-win outcome. Great for the firm, great for the commercial clients, great for professional development, and most importantly great for the pro bono client.