updated on 03 March 2020
QuestionWhy do we do pro bono?
Every year lawyers from across the UK provide thousands of hours of free legal advice to charities and those who can't afford legal advice as part of their pro bono practices. While the former allows charities to save money on legal spend and direct this towards their frontline services, the latter allows more vulnerable individuals to gain access to justice which they would otherwise be denied.
The trend in City law firms' commitment to access to justice is encouraging, with most firms now recognising the importance of hiring full-time lawyers to manage their pro bono practices, in order to ensure that their pro bono work is both strategic and impactful.
At Baker McKenzie we believe that pro bono is the right thing to do, and upholding justice is part of our professional obligation. If lawyers wish to give back to the communities in which they operate, then using their expert knowledge is the best way of doing this. Access to the high-quality legal skills at a law firm can make a huge difference to pro bono clients, both decreasing their exposure to risk and helping them obtain successful results in their legal matters.
In addition to the day-to-day organisational support which the firm provides to its charity clients, Baker McKenzie has grown its programme assisting individuals who are unable to access legal services. The firm has set up legal projects in the areas of children's nationality, social care and welfare benefits, to help clients assert the rights to which they are entitled, but may not have the means to enforce themselves. The firm also operates a Know Your Rights series of workshops at Thameside Prison, in partnerships with the charity Catch 22, and assists individuals who have had their employment rights infringed through an online queries platform, run by Working Families.
Baker McKenzie's pro bono efforts extend far beyond the UK, with numerous offices involved in projects around the globe. A signature example of this has been the firm's work on The Legal Atlas for Street Children, documenting the rights of street children in each jurisdiction, to inform child rights advocates, policy makers and children themselves around the world.
Pro bono is an opportunity to showcase a firm's commitment to justice in front of its commercial clients, many of whom use this as a key metric when deciding which law firms to instruct. Beyond simply doing their own pro bono work, law firms frequently extend pro bono opportunities to in-house lawyers, both increasing pro bono opportunities for in-house counsel and giving the firm's pro bono clients access to valuable skills, knowledge and personnel from the wider legal sector. At Baker McKenzie, a number of the firm's commercial clients have been involved in developing the Street Atlas, while others have co-delivered key legal training to the firm's charity clients.
Pro bono provides lawyers with the opportunity to develop their legal skills, sometimes in a new area of law, as well as essential soft skills, such as client interviewing. Group involvement on a project can improve teamwork and collaboration skills, while lawyers can also develop leadership skills by getting involved with the organisation and co-ordination of larger projects. Pro bono is an important recruitment and retention tool, both at trainee level and with lateral hires. Pro bono can give lawyers a sense of pride towards their employer, while access to high profile and challenging pro bono work can be the difference when choosing between one firm and another.
Although pro bono does not generate tangible financial return for a firm in the way that commercial work does, its benefits are many and far-reaching, ranging from benefitting those in society who need it most, through to attracting and retaining top talent in a fiercely competitive field.
Connie Faith, a current trainee in the real estate team at Baker McKenzie, recalls her pro bono experience first-hand: "In December last year, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to deliver a workshop to inmates at HM Thameside Prison alongside two colleagues from my department. The workshop aimed to aid prisoners, who were due to be released, to obtain housing after prison, with a particular focus on homelessness.
“Most of the prisoners we spoke to had been in and out of the prison system for many years. Many were not aware of their basic rights arising from the local council's duty to prevent homelessness and were very concerned about not having a place to stay on release. During the workshop we gave the prisoners practical advice on steps they could take before and after release, in order to prevent homelessness. The prisoners were extremely engaged throughout the workshop and very grateful for the advice we were able to provide them with.
It was not only the prisoners that learnt something through the workshop. Homelessness legislation was not an area of law that any of my team had encountered in practice. I was therefore required to use my research skills to become comfortable not only in delivering the workshop but also fielding questions from prisoners.
In the weeks leading up to the workshop I found myself getting nervous at the thought of speaking in public, particularly in an environment I had never found myself in before! However, during the workshop I shook this nervousness off, I felt confident in the knowledge I had acquired in the weeks before and I felt the importance of delivering key legal information. I have since volunteered for many other public speaking opportunities, which is something I had never really enjoyed before.
“I would recommend pro bono to anyone who wants to step outside of their comfort zone, use the skills they already have and to develop new ones, in order to help others."
Stas Kuzmierkiewicz, Jacob Turner and Connie Faith are lawyers at Baker McKenzie. Stas is a pro bono associate and Jacob and Connie are trainee solicitors.