Created with Hogan Lovells

How commercially relevant pro bono can take junior lawyers out of their comfort zone

Avatar photo

By Alex Wade on

Hogan Lovells’ legendary pro bono chief Yasmin Waljee looks at the way her firm is using its business and social enterprise programme to do good and take junior lawyer training to next level

It would be an understatement to say that Yasmin Waljee, International Pro Bono Director at Hogan Lovells, has had a successful career. In 2000, the Durham University graduate was The Times Woman Solicitor of the Year; in May 2005, she was short-listed for the Asian Women of Achievement Awards. Then, in 2010, Waljee was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her services to the Muslim community.

But for all her successes, Waljee is not one to sit on her laurels. “I still feel as inspired today as I was when I joined Hogan Lovells, to work as the firm’s first-ever pro bono director,” she says. “I’m as determined to engage corporate and commercial lawyers in pro bono work as ever. They can make such a difference, and I see motivating them as one of the main aspects of my role.”

Waljee graduated in Law and Economics, and then took the old law conversion course (now the Graduate Diploma in Law) before completing the Law Society Finals. She joined Simmons & Simmons as a trainee and stayed with the firm for a year post-qualification, before moving to Hogan Lovells. “The firm was very progressive,” says Waljee. “There was a fantastic partner there at the time called Graham Huntley. He was passionate about pro bono work and could see the benefits it would have for Hogan Lovells and its lawyers.”

Thanks to Huntley, Waljee carved out a unique role, becoming, in 1997, the first pro bono manager of any law firm in Europe. She relished her new role:

I’ve always felt that legal representation shouldn’t be the preserve of the few. It should be available to those who really need it. Human rights has long been a passion, too. I jumped at the chance to be the firm’s pro bono manager — it was wonderful to have an opportunity to use my legal skills in this area.

In the early days, Waljee and Hogan Lovells represented prisoners on death row in the Caribbean. This work morphed into a wider task: securing the abolition of the mandatory death penalty for murder in the Commonwealth Caribbean. “I was fortunate to have a large team of excellent lawyers working on this issue,” she recalls. “My role was to co-ordinate their work, and that of lawyers from other firms. Everyone came together for a common goal, and eventually we were successful in establishing that a mandatory death penalty in specific circumstances was unlawful. There now has to be an assessment of offenders’ circumstances and a thorough evaluation of the nature of the offence.”

Over the past 20 years Waljee has worked on any number of high-profile pro bono matters, taking Hogan Lovells from an annual figure of 300 hours of pro bono work when she joined to a remarkable 55,000 hours in 2016. She says “pro bono culture is now embedded in the firm, so much so that everyone here buys into our objective — to deliver an outstanding pro bono service to charities, individuals and social enterprises in need who would not otherwise be able to afford such advice.” Better yet, adds Waljee, pro bono work provides a number of fantastic opportunities for lawyers to enhance their skills and gain first-class, commercially relevant experience.

A look at some of the firm’s recent highlights would seem to prove her case. In March this year, Hogan Lovells — which, says Waljee, is “determined to empower women around the world, with involvement in 50 different, women-related projects at present” — partnered with The Barefoot College, an organisation founded in 1972 to work in a number of fields, from education and skills development to health and women’s empowerment.

“Our people will help Barefoot College to improve lives by empowering women in rural communities in the world’s most remote locations, training 400 women — known as solar mamas — in 35 countries to become solar engineers and bringing light to 20,000 homes,” explains Waljee, whose boundless energy also saw her gain an MA in the Theory and Practice of Human Rights from Essex University in 2003. The legal work is global in scope, and includes advising on a funding agreement for replacement solar panels at Barefoot College, India, advising on a new social investment finance loan facility from the college, and helping tie up an agreement that will help Barefoot Enterprises to expand its production of honey in Zanzibar, among other opportunities.

Plenty, in other words, for lawyers to get their teeth into — and anyone who remembers the 2013 film adaptation of The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by journalist Martin Sixsmith will be impressed by another pro bono matter bearing the Hogan Lovells’ stamp. The film tells the true story of a mother’s 50-year search for her forcibly adopted son. The firm has been “providing pro bono support to mothers and adopted people giving evidence to an independent investigation into Irish Mother and Baby Homes,” says Waljee. “Some 50 lawyers across the firm are involved in this. It’s really rewarding — women are able to tell their stories for the first time.”

Then there’s providing pro bono legal support to the London Air Ambulance (LAA) on a complex cross-border purchase of its second MD-902 Explorer helicopter from a Qatari company: thanks to the firm, the deal went through and LAA now has a second emergency medical helicopter. And, two years ago, there was the launch of a pioneering global business skills training course for lawyers, known as the Hogan Lovells Business and Social Enterprise Training Programme (HL BaSE). “It’s run in association with our social enterprise partners, Ashoka and UnLtd,” says Waljee. “The aim is not just to educate lawyers on the fundamentals of business but also to show them the importance of social impact in everything they do.”

HL BaSE sums up Waljee’s view that pro bono isn’t just good for those the firm is helping, it’s good for its lawyers, too. “It’s the first time a City law firm has launched a dedicated business school, and will allow us to expand our legal advice and business support practice to 60 potential high growth social enterprises, enabling them to take on £4.1 million of investment and the creation of more than 80 jobs over four years,” she says. Thanks to HL BaSE, some 200 lawyers globally are engaging with the firm’s clients in a more commercial, business-orientated way from the start of their careers. “It gives them a sharper business edge,” says Waljee.

Waljee is as enthused by these achievements as by her first successes, working on death row cases at the beginning of her career. And while not working as a solicitor as such, she says her legal nous is essential:

I bring a legal analysis to bear on everything I do, and then it’s a case of managing the work, getting the right people involved.

And for those young solicitors who would also like to engage in pro bono, Waljee offers two nuggets of advice: “Make sure you join a firm that has a strong, well-resourced pro bono practice. And get out of your comfort zone.”

Find out more about pro bono at Hogan Lovells

About Legal Cheek Careers posts.