A pro bono career path: a guide for lawyers

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Nicolas Patrick
DLA Piper, London



It is quite possible that Hogan and Hartson (now Hogan Lovells) was the first firm to create a standalone pro bono practice in 1970, headed by a dedicated pro bono equity partner in the United States. In 2004, when I moved from commercial litigation into a full-time pro bono lawyer position, a decision that was branded ‘career suicide’ by a colleague at the time, I thought I had removed myself from the partnership track. I was blissfully unaware that by 2004 there were in fact at least ten dedicated pro bono partners working in American law firms. It would be another 12 months before the first pro bono partner position was created in Australia, but remarkably only another four years before I became the fourth pro bono partner in the Australian market, just seven years after graduation and without any revenue-generating practice.

Pro bono partners: findings and trends

Today pro bono partner positions in law firms are commonplace: there are 66 examples of dedicated pro bono partner roles in 55 law firms globally. In a report published this month by the Australian Pro Bono Centre, DLA Piper, the Pro Bono Institute and Thomson Reuters Foundation titled ‘The Nature and Prevalence of Pro Bono Partner Roles Globally’,[1] we chart the growth in such positions and examine the counterintuitive logic behind the appointment of non-fee-generating partners to service the needs of non-fee-paying clients.

Some of the report’s key findings include:

  • sixty-one per cent of pro bono partners are fixed-share or salaried partners and the remaining 39 per cent are full equity or part equity partners;

  • pro bono partners exist in all partnership models including all-equity partnerships, and alternative business structures, where the former pro bono partners are now shareholders;

  • pro bono partners are mostly found in the world’s largest law firms, but can also be found in small firms;[2]

  • in general, all of the firms that have pro bono partners would be regarded as leading global firms, leading domestic firms, or leading law firms in a specialist area;

  • the current cohort of pro bono partners are based in four countries – Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the US, and many oversee international pro bono practices;

  • in most cases, the support of the CEO was identified as being the key factor that underpinned the creation of a pro bono partner role and without visionary leadership from the top, it is virtually impossible to create such a role;

  • The key aspects of the business case for the creation of a pro bono partner position were:

    • demonstration of the firm’s commitment to pro bono/access to justice;

    • firm values; and

    • desire to demonstrate leadership.

Genevieve Collins, Chief Executive Partner at Lander & Rogers explained that: ‘Having a pro bono partner is consistent with being a values-based firm. It connects us meaningfully with the community. It also demonstrates respect. Respect for the work that is being done, and for the individual leading the practice.’

It is clear that the nature of pro bono work has evolved enormously over the last decade. Pro bono practices are much larger and often operate across multiple jurisdictions. The work is increasingly complex, frequently connected to humanitarian emergencies, and almost always requires strategic engagement with a range of stakeholders. The growth in pro bono partner roles directly reflects these trends. The increasing size of law firms is also a factor driving growth in pro bono partner numbers. Baker McKenzie now has three pro bono partners based in Australia and the US, while DLA Piper has two pro bono partners, one in the UK and one in the US.

It is clear that law firm culture also plays an important role. Two Australian firms, Clayton Utz and Gilbert+Tobin, each have two dedicated pro bono partners. It is no coincidence that these firms were the first in Australia to employ dedicated pro bono lawyers in 1997. Clayton Utz was also the first firm in Australia to appoint a dedicated pro bono partner in 2005. The South African firm, Webber Wentzel, was the first firm in South Africa to appoint a dedicated pro bono partner in 2003. It now has three partners in the pro bono practice.

Interest in pro bono from commercial clients has also been a likely factor that has been considered by law firm leaders when increasing investment in pro bono. Seventy-four per cent of pro bono partners reported engaging with their firm’s commercial clients. The pro bono team at DLA Piper has delivered pro bono projects collaboratively with more than 50 of our key commercial clients over the past 12 months. Our pro bono practice is driven and underpinned by pure altruism. It isn’t a marketing exercise, and it was set up long before a single client showed any interest, but it has grown because of our ability to collaborate with a wide range of stakeholders, including several corporate clients.

Virtually all of the 44 pro bono partners who were surveyed for the report had a reporting line to the CEO, Managing Partner or Chairman, demonstrating the importance of the pro bono practice to the law firms. The strategic importance of the pro bono practice was confirmed by Paul Jenkins, the Global Managing Partner at Ashurst, who said: ‘Having a pro bono partner supports our strategic objectives as a firm relating to people, clients, values, culture and vision.’

The number of dedicated pro bono partners increased by more than 21 in the past decade, with Australia accounting for 11 of the pro bono partner appointments over the last ten years following significant growth in pro bono lawyer numbers in Australia in the preceding decade. The period from 2010 to 2019 saw pro bono lawyer numbers in the UK swell from about 12 to more than 50 according to information published by the Collaborative Plan for Pro Bono,[3] suggesting the next decade will see significant growth in the number of pro bono partner roles in the UK as the current group of full-time pro bono lawyers working in large law firms reaches the stage of their career where partnership is a serious option.

The report contains a wealth of information which will be relevant to both law firm leaders and pro bono lawyers considering the structure that is most appropriate for their pro bono practice.


[1] DLA Piper, the Australian Pro Bono Centre, the Pro Bono Institute and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, The Nature and Prevalence of Pro Bono Partner Roles Globally, 2020, available at: www.trust.org/publications/i/?id=4960b6d8-17c2-48cd-8c98-6d4f85213672, last accessed 31 March 2020.

[2] One pro bono partner is in a firm with a total of just 25 partners.

[3] UK Collaborative Plan for Pro Bono, Our Impact, available at: http://probonoplan.uk/what/projects, last accessed 31 March 2020.


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