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City firms sign up to 25-hours-a-year pro bono deal

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Mix of US and English practices lead way — but is there more to be done and what does pro bono mean for legal aid?

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One of the biggest developments to come out of this month’s legal profession Pro Bono Week was word that 20 City law firms have agreed to have their fee earners contribute 25 hours of free work annually.

The group — a mix of big-hitting English firms and US practices with London offices — is reported to have launched task forces around key practice areas, including immigration and family law.

All very admirable on its face — and doubtless younger lawyers will be pushed to the initiative’s front line — but as with so much around pro bono, the commitment poses more questions than it answers.

For example, it is unclear whether the pro bono hours will count towards the fee-earners’ annual targets or whether they will required on top.

The firms maintain strongly that the pro bono work should in no way be seen as filling the gap left by cuts to legal aid eligibility and rates. However, with a focus on immigration and family matters, it’s difficult to see how that argument can be justified.

Both areas have been hard hit by the cuts, and one imagines the secretary of state and his gang of junior ministers at the Ministry of Justice will be well chuffed at the thought of wealthy global firms picking up the slack.

And while the 25-hour commitment shouldn’t be sneered at, it doesn’t really count as that much of a stretch for the US firms, as the target is only half what they are expected to do stateside.

The American Bar Association’s model rule 6.1 suggests:

“that lawyers should aspire to render — without fee — at least 50 hours of pro bono publico legal services per year, with an emphasis that these services be provided to people of limited means or nonprofit organisations that serve the poor”.

To be fair, the Yanks have a considerably more established pro pono pedigree than lawyers in Blighty. That is in no small part the result of historically having a far less comprehensive social welfare system in the US, and almost no legal aid provision to speak of.

In contrast to the ABA, the solicitors’ trade union in England and Wales, the Law Society, is reluctant to suggest a minimum target for law firm annual pro bono hours. According to a spokeswoman:

“The Law Society does not have a policy relating to pro bono targets as this has always been a decision at the firms’ discretion. We are currently looking at how we can best support the work of firms involved in this new collaborative plan and we welcome their commitment to access to justice through pro bono work.”

But with just about every political party in the UK – bar the Greens – arguing that more austerity lies ahead, perhaps UK lawyers will have to start adopting more of a US approach to pro bono.

The firms in the London group are: Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, Allen & Overy, Arnold & Porter, Ashurst, Clifford Chance, Dechert, Dentons, DLA Piper, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, Latham & Watkins, Linklaters, Morgan Lewis, Olswang, Reed Smith, Shearman & Sterling, Simmons & Simmons, Weil Gotshal & Manges and White & Case.

For more information about the top 60 law firms — including which pay most, which are most diverse and which have the most social media clout — check out the The Legal Cheek Top 60 Firms ‘Most’ List and accompanying law firm profiles.

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