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.
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?