Pro Bono Plunges Across The Magic Circle

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As the slashing of the legal aid budget nears, it has become common to hear City law firms talked up as white knights ready to ride to the rescue of those no longer able to secure funding to take their problems to court. The trouble is, the amount of hours these firms devote to their pro bono programmes keeps falling.

A City lawyer reflects on the legal aid cuts
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is the latest to announce a decline, with its freshly released 2010-11 corporate social responsibility (CSR) report revealing that pro bono and volunteering activities are down by 11% across the firm. It gets worse, much worse…

The news follows the December admission by fellow magic circle outfit Linklaters that its total number of CSR hours for the year had plunged by a massive 31.5%. A few months earlier, Allen & Overy disclosed that the total amount of hours it spent on pro bono work had plummeted by 27%.

Meanwhile, the 2% rise in pro bono at Clifford Chance excitedly reported on by Legal Week in September came on the back of a whopping 29% fall in the firm’s pro bono hours the previous year – something the magazine failed to mention.

Part of the problem is that the cash-strapped legal press is too scared to hold magic circle firms to account for fear they will stop advertising with them. Until this changes, is it realistic to expect these profit-obsessed firms – where, in spite of the fall in CSR hours, the top partners earn almost £2m – to be relied upon to fill the gap set to be created by the legal aid cuts?



My beef with the stats given for pro bono contributions from the big firms is that they don’t often demonstrate the true “value” of the work.

For example – firm X might say that they’ve contributed £Y to pro bono – but if £Y = yearly salary of a trainee x however many trainees have gone on secondments to charities / law centres this figure is vastly inflated because 1. the trainee’s salary reflects trainee’s value in big law firm and not their value in law centre (where a qualified lawyer’s salary is likely to be significantly lower than city trainee) and 2. trainees seconded to law centres etc are ultimately no more qualified than regular volunteers – they often have near to no experience of the legal issues the charities / law centres are dealing with so their ability to make a real contribution to the work is limited.

Sending trainees to under-resourced law centres might make big law firms feel all warm and fuzzy inside but law centres would probably just prefer the cash to spend on a properly qualified member of staff or better resources rather than wasting time to train up someone who is not committed to that type of work.

Obviously this doesn’t take into account all of the ways in which firms account for their pro bono activity but I do think that the focus needs to be on more sustainable and meaningful ways to support law centres / legal charities and initiatives rather than just throwing man hours at them and hoping for the best.


[…] 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 […]


[…] week (7 February 2012), a blog site edited by Alex Aldridge, published a blog ‘Pro Bono Plunges Across The Magic Circle’. The blog quotes a drop in pro bono activity reported by the ‘magic circle’ and attributed, in […]


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