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Oi lawyers — do more free work, demands think tank

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A leading political thinker-cum-Anglican theologian reckons the legal profession should spend up to 10% of its time on pro bono

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A left-of-centre think tank has called on lawyers to do more work for free as the “it’s a business” approach to practice “undermines the profession’s vocation and can grievously harm its ethics”.

In a report released earlier this week, London-based ResPublica acknowledged that pro bono was a “significant” part of the legal profession, but it went on to say that for many lawyers “the law has become … no more than a revenue generating business”.

The “non-partisan” group — launched five years ago by political philosopher and Anglican theologian Phillip Bond — went on to call for the introduction of “a pro bono obligation as part of the professional obligation of all lawyers”.

The report hit lawyers hard, saying:

Many solicitors and barristers undertake a considerable amount of below cost or free work in the course of their professional lives. However, it is also the case that for many lawyers, the law has become for them no more than a revenue generating business.

The authors went on to call for a mandatory pro bono scheme that would be regulated by the professional bodies. Such a programme, said the report, “could help inculcate an understanding across the profession that the law is not just a business but also and most importantly a vocation.”

According to ResPublica, forcing lawyers to do free work “would build public support and provide far greater access to justice”.

Under its proposal, commercial lawyers would be obliged to spend 10% of their time toiling for free, while those in legal aid practice areas — which many already regard as working nearly for free — would be obliged to devote 5% of their time to pro bono activity.

That structure, according to the think tank, would produce some 30 million hours annually of free legal advice for the public in England and Wales.

Predictably, the legal profession establishment did not greet the report with unalloyed glee. In a measured and diplomatic response, new Law Society President Jonathan Smithers said “the legal profession is committed to providing free legal advice to those in need”.

Smithers went on to summarise the society’s view of the efforts already being made by the profession:

On average each solicitor provides more than 50 hours a year of free advice benefitting some of the most vulnerable people in our society who would not be able to access legal help in any other way. We know of no other profession doing so much. All of this is on a voluntary basis and reflects solicitors’ commitment to the communities they live and work in and to our wider society.

He continued:

From young families facing eviction to charities dealing with the legal complexities of delivering their services, solicitors giving legal help for free helps so many people, directly and indirectly.

Bond co-authored the ResPublica report with Elena Antonacopoulou, a professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Liverpool Management School, and Adrian Pabst, a senior politics lecturer at the School of Politics and International Relations at Kent University.

Read the report in full below:

In Professions We Trust

11 Comments

Quo Vadis

It is terribly strange how the law is the only profession expected to work for free. You never hear of a school teacher being asked to teach for free, or a surgeon expected to hack off limbs gratis. But I suppose we are all fat cats and can bear it.

(32)(0)

Anon

My thoughts exactly…

I can assure ResPublica that the plumber who visited my flat recently and sorted a problem which, by his own admission, was “easy” did not offer that service free of charge

(9)(0)

amelinixon

All the professions work for free. Teachers plan lessons in their own time, social workers and support workers frequently give their time for example.
I know that some Lawyers give 30 minutes free through the CAB to those in need. We are all in it together as they say….

(0)(14)

Sir Viv

You get what you pay for in life

(1)(0)

Anonymous

“However, it is also the case that for many lawyers, the law has become for them no more than a revenue generating business”

Erm, yes? Maybe because it’s our job? You know, the thing we do to earn a living.

Since when did this become a controversial concept?

(24)(0)

Non-Oxbridge Pleb

I look forward to surgeons being told to come in at weekends and do a couple of pro bono heart byspasses. I am also excited for the 10% of my weekly groceries that I will be getting for free, stock brokers being expected to spend 10% of their day picking up litter, and CEOs being fined if they don’t spend 10% of their time running a charity.

Levity aside, this is one of the most ludicrous and patently incompetent suggestions to have been indirectly endorsed by this new government (Gove essentially supported this idea in his latest speech). What will be the penalties for non-compliance? Fines? Being struck off? Prison? Much as the thought of a corporate finance partner being ticked off for refusing to do six hours a week at Crodyon mag’s court makes me laugh, the idea of that same partner actually turning up and doing the case fills me with a greater quantity of dread.

There is an inherent assumption that law is all basically the same. That criminal lawyers are so useless that their work can be done by corporate sols who haven’t picked up a criminal textbook for fifteen years. That the work is inherently not worth being paid to do.

Objection to this utterly idiotic idea does not come from an opposition to pro bono work in general. Loads of corporate sols already do some pro bono where it fits their skills – finance or projects work for a charity, for instance. No, objection comes from the fact that we are not competent to be doing this work, and there is no obvious reason why we should be forced to work for free at all. The whole thing is a recipe for negligence, and what about in-housers, most of whom don’t even have Professional Indemntiy Insurance?!

And what member of the public, faced with a road traffic offence, deportation, or minor civil claim, wants some big partner swooping in from the City and distractedly giving it a go, while fielding calls from their ‘real’ corporate clients? Of course, most are decent enough to at least try not to be awful, but there is just no replacement for a proper criminal lawyer who knows what they are doing.

My suspicion is that if this got through (it won’t), one of two things would happen:

1. Big corporate firms employ a load of low wage paralegals to do the 10% quota of pro bono work on behalf of their lawyers, while smaller firms struggle to make up the 10% loss of utilisation.

OR

2. Clients receive a letter saying “due to the government’s new rules on pro bono work, we will from now on be glad to write off 10% of all billable hours. On a completely unrelated note, the firm’s fees will be rising by 12% over the next six months.”

We need a proper legal service, with salaries at a similar level to doctors (perhaps starting a little lower given the disparity in years of training required). Paid for by taxes. Unfortunately, it is far more popular these days to farm out governmental responsibilities to private businesses. It’ll only get worse, thank the Tories.

(20)(0)

Anon

To quote the great philosopher T. Joker, ‘if you’re good at something never do it for free’.

(4)(0)

Shirley

These idiots just don’t fucking get it.

How many poor people need a M & A lawyer on their side?

(9)(1)

Satin Cut

I wouldn’t mind being paid to sit and ‘think’ all day.

What a coincidence that this surfaced on the day the Bar Ballot was to be published.

(5)(1)

Anonymous

Perhaps Mr Pabst should go and see the work of the Law Clinic at his own institution – Kent to understand that the sense of vocation is already strong in the profession and learn a bit more about the current provision of pro bono support in a part of the country that has become something of an advice desert. Instead of writing guff like this perhaps he should write about the benefits of a properly funded legal aid service and the way it can reduce the overall cost burden on the State. He should toddle off to the Family court and see the challenges that the rise of litigants in person has wrought on the whole system. He would also benefit from seeing the complex nature of the legal issues being dealt with. As others have said, this can be very complex law and a lawyer from the magic circle would probably make an unmitigated hash of it.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

Oi think tank — do more free work, demands lawyers
I am a criminal lawyer
Ergo
I basically work for free
Ah the beauty of an included hearing
How The hell did they get away with that !

(0)(0)

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