The concept of providing free legal advice to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it isn't a novel one. In fact, it's a principle which has been ingrained in the legal industry for centuries. But whilst a strong commitment to pro bono has long been common practice for law firms in the US, it hasn’t always enjoyed quite the same prominence in the UK.
Three years ago Dechert’s London office introduced the bold requirement that every lawyer at the firm was required to undertake at least 25 hours of pro bono a year. “And that is absolutely everyone, including the chairman, the chief executive and all of the firm's practice group leaders”, explains Sean Geraghty, partner in Dechert’s corporate and securities group and a member of the London pro bono committee.
Impressively, Dechert pledges 3% of its chargeable hours to pro bono per year and often goes beyond that commitment - and the results speak for themselves. “The fact that no one complains about the commitment which we require is demonstrative of the culture that we are genuinely committed to pro bono as a firm”, reflects Charlie Wynn-Evans, head of Dechert’s employment practice in London, chair of the London pro bono committee and a member of the firm’s global pro bono committee.
So how has Dechert made such a success of its pro bono scheme? By committing to it, says Charlie. “From the top down, we actually mean what we say and deliver on it. It’s not just ‘oh it would be nice to do pro bono’, rather it’s a core aspect of who and what we are as a firm”. Sean agrees: “Pro bono is an integral part of the firm’s practice and is treated in the same manner as the rest of the Firm's work, with the same staffing, resources and commitment. Our chairman is closely involved in a number of pro bono matters in the States and that atmosphere pervades across the whole firm”.
Trainees get involved too. Sonali Sullivan-Mackenna is the second-year trainee representative on the London pro bono committee. Among her many responsibilities, Sonali is in charge of maintaining the trainee clinic rota, circulating pro bono-related materials to all fee earners and assisting the committee organise pro bono referrals. But being on the committee has also brought with it an unexpected benefit. “The committee is made up of people from different seniority levels and practice areas so it means that I meet other people at the firm who I may not have otherwise”.
Unsurprisingly, there’s no shortage of people who are in need of Dechert’s expert pro bono skills, and for employment lawyer Charlie, pro bono opportunities are in abundance. “Whether it’s assisting with tribunal cases, handbooks, policies or contracts, there is always plenty of advice needed”. Likewise, corporate lawyer Sean, who recently assisted on the merging of two African charities, finds that his area of expertise is often in demand. “Both charities were trying to raise money to do largely the same thing and in an era where charities are facing increased challenges in terms of attracting funding, it makes sense to pool resources”, says Sean. “Corporate skills lend themselves quite well to the needs of pro bono clients. We do broadly the same types of work as for our fee-paying clients”.
But it may not be so straightforward for lawyers working in other practice areas. “A lawyer in a specialist finance practice may not find it so easy to find something they feel comfortable doing on a pro bono basis”, says Charlie. The key, he says, is having a variety of opportunities on offer so that everyone can get involved.
More often than not however, it is the transferrable skills of lawyers, applicable to myriad situations, which pro bono clients find most useful. “We are trained to explain to people what they need to do to achieve their goals in as simple and clear a way as possible”, Sean explains. “Whether it’s something as formal as acting for people on death row in the US or a simpler task like helping someone who has received 25 letters from the Council Tax office and can’t work through the documents, we are trained to do that. It’s important to help people who can’t help themselves and as lawyers we have a lot of tools at our disposal that can effect change.”
Sean Geraghty - Sean helped a father of a disabled son to set up a charity which provided counselling and support for other parents in a similar situation. “Because it came from someone who had actually worked through the issues themselves on a personal level, it was particularly gratifying to help set up the charity and formalise it so that he could then help others who find themselves in the same position”.
Charlie Wynn-Evans - Charlie is currently working for a London-based charity on discrimination claims brought by a member of staff in ongoing proceedings. He has assisted the charity, of which he has previously been a trustee, on a variety of employment matters over the years. “Sometimes pro bono is very episodic – you can go to a clinic, meet someone, give them advice and never see or hear from them again, but there are other clients who you see through thick and thin. You build up a really valuable ongoing relationship with them”.
Sonali Sullivan-Mackenna - "I was working as part of a team assisting a London-based organisation which aims to identify and recover looted property on behalf of a particular family whose grandparents were persecuted by the Nazis and had to give up a piece of valuable artwork. This case was about working for the restitution of the piece of Nazi-looted art and was completely different to anything else I worked on. It was really tough because it went beyond just legal ideas but was nevertheless completely fascinating".
For trainees and junior lawyers in particular, of the plethora of benefits they can derive from pro bono work, one of the most important is client contact. Whilst trainees at Dechert are given as much exposure to clients as possible, it’s fair to say that the bulk of client-facing work is usually reserved for more senior members of the team. By taking on pro bono work, trainees are guaranteed more client contact.
What’s more, in contrast to the primarily sophisticated client base Dechert has built up since its inception in 1875, the firm’s pro bono clients come from all sorts of different backgrounds. The diverse problems these clients present, from social housing issues to parking fines, are also a far cry from the high-level transactions and cases routinely dealt with by the firm. “It’s rarely the stuff you deal with in your day job at Dechert but that doesn’t mean it’s not really interesting, challenging and great for personal development”, says Sean.
For the last few years, Dechert has been working in partnership with the Islington Law Centre, where trainees are required to undertake three sessions during their training contract at the Advice Clinic. “You sit in a little room where it’s just you and the client”, explains Sonali. “The first time I went it was a bit daunting, but it’s not necessarily a case of having to give hard advice then and there. It’s more of a fact-finding mission. You ask the client the right questions and you go away and do further research and draft any necessary documentation”.
Through their work at the law centre, trainees gain the invaluable experience of meeting clients, taking instructions and writing them up, not to mention case management skills. After the initial meeting it is the trainees’ responsibility to carry out any necessary research and draft the follow up documentation. This enables them to develop skills which are crucial for any lawyer and which will inevitably stand them in good stead for their future career.
By no means are trainees unsupervised, however. After each Advice Clinic recruits meet with Charlie to run through the client’s problem, what they discussed and decide what the next steps are. “It’s guaranteed that you’ll speak with him after the clinic. He checks through your follow-up letter and any other documents you’ve drafted before they are sent off”, Sonali clarifies. Evidently the approach to pro bono at Dechert really is top down.
But it can’t be all that easy, surely. After all, trainee solicitors and junior lawyers don’t always have control over their own workload and often find themselves faced with conflicting deadlines and competing obligations. So does Sonali have any tips as to how to balance pro bono with fee-earning work? “A lot of the time it’s just common sense. Sometimes something really interesting will come through but you don’t take it on if you don’t have capacity, just like with any other work”. And if trainees do find themselves in a corner, “the pro bono work that we do is not to be treated in any way differently to other work for paying clients. It is not a second-class form of work” emphasises Charlie, “It is the fact that it is firm work which is important”.