For the good - Nicola Laver

 


The deepening global recession has increased the needs of many charities for pro bono legal services, and the IBA is keen to support law firms in their efforts.

The banks that lost US$1 billion when Bernard Madoff’s corrupt investment fund sank did not garner huge sympathy, but the charities and public interest organisations that fell victim are a different story. Aside from those left with no choice but to cease their operations, some that have survived thus far are struggling and don’t have the cash to pay for legal services.

The collapse of the Madoff empire and other consequences of a deepening global recession have amplified the needs of many charities for pro bono legal services. But although a hallmark of these organisations is their ability to be resourceful, there is only so far limited funds can be stretched – and the organisations’ very survival is dependent partly on the pro bono programmes offered by law firms internationally.

IBA support

The IBA is visibly affirming its commitment to improving and encouraging access to justice. Its website www.internationalprobono.com is dedicated to promoting and supporting pro bono legal work and access to justice. A defining feature of the site is its many resources available to legal professionals globally such as training materials and the linking together of lawyers and organisations.

The IBA’s Pro Bono Declaration, made at the end of last year, is further evidence of the strength of its commitment to access to justice. Within the declaration, the IBA Council ‘calls on lawyers, law firms and bar associations to provide pro bono legal service’ and states: ‘The importance and practice of pro bono legal service should be emphasised and promoted in legal education and practice, by making pro bono opportunities a part of the academic or practical programmes for law students and by giving credit to lawyers taking continuing legal education or working in this field.’

Fernando Pombo, IBA President when the declaration was approved, has immense confidence in the abilities of the worldwide legal profession. He says that while it is too
soon to see any results of the declaration itself, he adds: ‘What we see growing in the past few months is the impressive commitment of hundreds and hundreds of lawyers across the world to help the people that need legal support. I really think they hold the key to solving most of the world’s problems.’

Firms diverge on pro bono activity

But will this hit home at grass-roots level in the midst of a global recession? Anecdotal evidence suggests a puzzling divergence of firms whose pro bono programmes are suffering and those that are doing well as a result of the adverse economic climate. But myriad factors need to be taken into account before a conclusion can be drawn as to whether the recession is actually having a direct effect on firms’ pro bono work. Some firms, for example, have cut the number of fee earners, thereby diverting cash from salaries into other areas; some have chosen to cut budgets in areas of practice including pro bono; some have dedicated pro bono structures, while others take on pro bono work on an ad hoc basis.

Much will depend on how the management of law firms addresses the importance of maintaining, if not increasing, the momentum of their pro bono programmes when the need has rarely been greater – despite the economic woes facing their legal practices.

Patricia Blair, Chair of the IBA’s Pro Bono and Access to Justice Committee, believes it is too early to conclude that the current economic climate is having an adverse impact on pro bono work. And she says: ‘There has been a sort of silver lining. As law firms eliminate positions, more lawyers are forced into taking early retirement, delaying employment start dates, and finding themselves newly unemployed, with time on their hands which they often devote to pro bono projects.’

As for the future picture, she adds: ‘Unfortunately, we can predict that this challenging global economy will delay, if not, negate, various projects that would otherwise have improved access to justice for many individuals in many countries. Moreover, irrespective of this current global recession, there are just too few resources to be brought to bear on critical access to justice issues worldwide.’

IBA members will soon receive a survey from the Pro Bono and Access to Justice Committee in readiness for the forthcoming IBA Annual Conference in Madrid in October. This, says Blair, should provide the information needed to evaluate the impact of the state of the economy on pro bono work.

One firm experiencing a positive effect of the recession on its pro bono work is London magic circle firm Linklaters, which is seeing greater opportunities in this field. Kathryn Ludlow, global pro bono partner, says:

‘The recession hasn’t had an impact on Linklaters’ interest and involvement in pro bono work. If anything, because the nonprofit- making organisations we work with are more strapped for cash and there are greater demands for their services, we are finding there are more opportunities for us to get involved in pro bono work – we welcome this.’

There is an important factor that suggests a secure future for pro bono work despite the financial state of play: where, until relatively recently, pro bono work was for the most part fragmented and informal, now law firms that are serious about the issue typically have a wellmanaged, dedicated pro bono infrastructure that is more than capable of stepping up to the challenge of an increase in demand.

At one time, a prevailing argument was that pro bono work was not ‘businesslike’; many forward-thinking firms are now recognising that a dedicated pro bono programme is good for their reputations and must not topple over in the prevailing economic storm.



‘Pro bono activity must keep growing’
Fernando Pombo


Difficult jurisdictions

But even where law firms have the resources to commit to pro bono, there are jurisdictions where access to justice is curtailed, and pro bono legal work is difficult if not prohibited. In Brazil, for example, pro bono work is frowned on but, says Blair, ‘many practitioners there are hopeful that the Declaration of the Americas, adopted by many firms in South America and North America in 2008, will change this attitude’. She adds: ‘The adoption of the IBA Pro Bono Declaration is an important step in 36 identifying any prohibitions against pro bono that exist across the world.’

In other jurisdictions, an inherent problem is that restrictions to pro bono are a by-product of other rules. Linklaters’ global pro bono manager Elsha Butler explains: ‘There are jurisdictions where regulations have hindered pro bono work, such as laws on minimum fees intended to regulate price competition between law firms in western European countries, including Germany. Another example is Hong Kong, where rules prevent lawyers qualified in other jurisdictions from advising on local law matters affecting those
in need of assistance.’ The firm has recently commenced a new project assisting the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre.

But the situation is changing for some indigenous people. Philip F Zeidman, erstwhile Chair of the IBA’s Pro Bono and Access to Justice Committee, led the initiative to create
the IBA’s pro bono website. He says:

‘Sweden and China are two recent jurisdictions that have emerged out of some restrictions. According to a report, in Sweden pro bono work had almost disappeared due to some restrictions on legal aid. This prompted the profession to International Bar News AUGUST 2009 37 re-establish a basic scheme for rendering pro bono assistance. China has recently established a new national legal aid scheme. Until 2004, there was no legal framework in China under which a foreign non-profit organisation could operate. Now, I understand, the scene is changing, and the government has been allowing some domestic non-profit organisations to operate.’


‘The challenging global economy will delay projects that would otherwise have improved access to justice’
Patricia Blair
Mediation Consultants LLC


The urgent need in 2009 for pro bono legal services is clear and law firms must step into the breach. The global recession should be fuel for law firms to cement their commitment – and they will certainly reap the benefits long term with a notable reputation for services to the public.

Fernando Pombo sets a challenge: ‘No matter what the economic cycle is, access to justice is, and has to be, guaranteed by every state to all its citizens, especially for those who have difficulties accessing this kind of service. This doesn’t mean we don’t have to be watchful. We have to encourage all the organisations and institutions involved to make the effort to keep this work up. Pro bono activity must keep growing.

And during hard times, more than ever.’

 

Further information


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Nicola Laver is a former practising lawyer and lecturer in legal practice and is now a legal journalist and writer based near Birmingham. She can be contacted via www.legaljournalist.co.uk or by e-mail at nicola.laver@legaljournalist.co.uk.

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