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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