It’s not all that often that I think Alex misses the point, but in his article yesterday on the London Legal Walk, I’m afraid he might have.
Let me start off by answering the first question he asked: “Is the London Legal Walk the shortest, least taxing sponsored walk in the history of sponsored walks?”
Yes. Because the walking isn’t really the point...
As City pro bono hours drop, Alasdair Stewart of pro bono charity LawWorks is buoyed by firms' greater appetite for 'boots-on-the-ground' projects
Alex Aldridge’s much-discussed article on Legal Cheek yesterday about magic circle law firms’ plunging pro bono figures is one of those occasions where I’m not sure that the facts are showing the real picture.
Firstly, it is important to consider the context in which the declines have taken place. Are these reductions in the often-criticised pro bono ‘vanity projects’, by which I mean the international-focused, PR-generating, CSR brochure-friendly efforts? Or are these falls in the boots-on-ground, staple pro bono work? Only the latter matters in relation to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.
From the limited information we have to go on – which is based on what firms disclose in their CSR reports – this is simply impossible to work out.
LawWorks’ Alasdair Stewart on why there's more to life than training contracts
When I started my law degree, my thoughts were firmly focused on how it would aid a career in business. By the end of the course, I was moving to London to work for a charity.
I was very fortunate to attend the University of Strathclyde where they run a very successful pro bono law clinic. Unlike most other law clinics, emphasis is placed on student ownership of both the clinic’s direction and the cases that are worked on.
As an inexperienced second year student who'd never studied employment law, I was suddenly faced with explaining to a partner at an international law firm why my client wasn’t going to accept their offer to settle an unfair dismissal claim. To say this focuses the mind would be putting it mildly; they say teaching is the best way to learn something, but I’d argue that having to deal with a law firm partner on the end of a telephone is just as effective. To this day, I still feel like I know more about employment law than any other area I studied, purely from that one pro bono case (which eventually settled, making my client very happy).
Rather than criticise pro bono charities for "overselling" themselves, legal aid lawyers need to work with them, argues Alasdair Stewart
Last month the Legal Action Group warned pro bono charities against making too much noise about the amount of pro bono assistance that they are helping to support - and the danger this poses. “The pro bono movement must not fall into the trap of overselling itself to a government that is all too happy to adopt it as an alternative to legal aid and other publicly funded advice services,” it asserted.
However, in the wake of a rather low key national pro bono week in November, my experience is that, if anything, pro bono undersells itself. As the Legal Action Group’s aim is to promote equal access to justice, one would assume that they are aware of the stance taken by the pro bono charities on legal aid - contained within the agreed pro bono protocol, which states: “Pro Bono Legal Work is always only an adjunct to, and not a substitute for, a proper system of publicly funded legal services.”
Indeed, so worried were the charities about the impact of the impending cuts, they appeared before the House of Commons Justice Committee and categorically stated: “If there is an assumption that some body...will step into the breach and fill what looks to be an enormous gaping hole that is going to be created when no social welfare law legal aid provision will be provided, and if there is an assumption that that will be by lawyers doing more pro bono work, I have to disabuse you of that, I am afraid.”.
Could it be any clearer? Pro bono work depends on the infrastructure and local community knowledge provided by legal aid to operate effectively. One can’t exist without the other.
But despite the complaints from lawyers and disinterest from the press, the fact the event takes place at all represents major progress, says Alasdair Stewart
National pro bono week took place last month, but I fear that it passed most people by. Despite a range of events taking place up and down the country, coverage in the legal press was limited. Indeed, more than one person suggested to me that the mood seemed lower-key than you’d expect for what was the tenth anniversary of the event.
In Scotland, the profile was perhaps higher – but for all the wrong reasons. This national pro bono week was the first since the launch of LawWorks Scotland in March (an entirely separate charity to LawWorks in London, despite sharing the name). The body's patron called for all Scottish lawyers “to make an annual donation of ten hours of their time to mark the UK’s tenth Pro Bono Week”. This was met with seething criticism from vocal lawyers across social media and in sections of the Scottish legal press.