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PRO BONO WEEK: OUT WITH A WHIMPER

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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.

And thus, rather than spending the week taking the positive message out to the public, LawWorks Scotland was forced to defend itself from those within the profession who clearly had an axe to grind. I hate to think what those individuals would have thought had they heard the call at Monday’s debate in London calling for an aspirational target of 50 hours of pro bono each year (a target a number of law firms already support – including at least one with offices in Scotland).

For me, this was all missing the point of the event. Pro bono week shouldn’t be seven days for the legal profession to debate how much work lawyers should be giving in pro bono each year (we have another 51 weeks each year for that). It should be an occasion to speak with a single positive voice, raising awareness outside the legal profession and educating members of the public about the great pro bono work that is already going on. Among the professions, law is unique in the organised way it approaches pro bono work. So we should therefore be shouting as loud as we can about the fact that many lawyers do have a social conscience and will try to help if they can. In this age of banker bashing, I can’t think of anything more appropriate and it’s a pity the opportunity was missed.

One barrister I spoke with told me that little over ten years ago the idea of the Law Society, Bar Council and the Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX) jointly supporting a national pro bono week would have been remarkable. Perhaps next year, 11 years on, the legal profession in Scotland will finally catch up and be able to show the same enlightenment by rallying round the event to celebrate the great pro bono work that is clearly going on north of the border.

Alasdair Stewart works for a pro bono charity

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