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City Pro Bono Falls: Airfare Savings?

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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.

What I can say is that in my recent experiences as a project manager at LawWorks, the solicitors’ pro bono group, I have found more law firms to be engaging more with us and looking at how to respond to changes in the legal aid situation. The figures look good. We are seeing more participation in legal advice clinics, increased numbers of individual cases taken on, and more small charities and community groups assisted.

The rhetoric is also positive. Firms are very conscious of the looming cuts and the impact this will have on both the demand and effectiveness of their pro bono efforts, with plenty of discussion on what pro bono work should look like in 2012 and beyond. But there is absolutely no suggestion that the profession as a whole can fill the gap created by these devastating cuts.

Many of the pro bono projects that fail to make it into glossy CSR brochures are celebrated each year at the LawWorks Awards. You can get a flavour for them in our last programme. Conveniently, nominations have just opened for this year’s awards. Budding individuals, teams, partnerships and offices can apply here.

One of the comments on Aldridge’s article, by Disillusioned, criticised the value of pro bono work provided by big law firms and suggested that pro bono law centres would instead “probably just prefer the cash to spend on a properly qualified member of staff.” In response to that I’d point out that despite a drop in hours, it was great to see Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer increasing their cash donations by 7.1% compared to the previous year.

The legal profession and firms of all sizes have also collectively helped to raise additional funds through the London Legal Support Trust for the eighth year running, raising a record breaking £490,000 alone through the London Legal Walk last May, with all the funds going to support advice agencies and other good causes in the South East. While a drop in the ocean compared to the vast looming cuts, every little helps – and just shows there’s always a silver lining somewhere.

Alasdair Stewart is project manager at pro bono charity LawWorks.

2 Comments

I say it with love

“Boots on the Ground” often means City trainees.

These people are called “trainees” for a reason. These boots don’t necessarily “hit the ground running”.

City firms have kept many worthy pro bono projects alive – both by via cash contributions and hard work.

I’ve learned a great deal from Partners and senior associates who also volunteer.

Pro Bono benefits the trainee, but it takes a while for the trainee to benefit a pro bono client.

If City firms are having to limit pro bono giving, throwing more unqualified trainees at pro bono clients is not going to redress the balance nor be an adequate substitute for legal aid.

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Disillusioned

My point exactly “I say it with love”.

It is heartening to read that some firms remain committed to pro bono efforts (i.e. Freshfields’ increase in cash donations) but my gut reaction is that it simply isn’t enough. When I see a local law centre having to do a shout-out on facebook for staples and ring binders – it’s hard to feel reassured that they’re getting the support they need.

“Positive rhetoric” is all good and well but it’s only a starting point – rhetoric is pointless if it doesn’t inspire action. The focus needs to be on meaningful and sustainable long-term commitment – more important than ever in the face of the looming cuts to legal aid.

I must say, LawWorks is a really inspiring organisation – keep up the amazing work and push, push, push!

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