Lending a hand - pro bono efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic

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Tony Williams
Jomati Consultants, London


The coronavirus pandemic will, outside world wars, result in the largest loss of life and disruption of business experienced for hundreds of years.

Inevitably, in a moment of crisis, we see the best and worst traits of human behaviour, the best being health and care professionals risking their lives to provide care to Covid-19 patients.

Many businesses are closed. Governments are providing unprecedented levels of support and may yet need to do even more. Some businesses, especially those in the travel, leisure, hospitality and retail sectors, may never reopen.

It is in this context that we need to look at the impact on law firms. In many ways lawyers are less adversely affected than other industry sectors. Most lawyers can work from home, while clients need legal advice more than ever, including help on contract disputes, landlord issues, accessing government support programmes, employment issues including potential redundancies and recapitalisations and insolvency. Law firm leaders’ priority was the health and security of their people, which was mainly addressed by enabling home-working. Home-working has also enabled lawyers to keep in contact with their clients and service their needs.

Many firms have now prepared business scenarios with accompanying cashflow forecasts. They have typically deferred profit distributions to partners and given themselves more leeway by increasing borrowing facilities or increasing partner capital contributions. Some have taken advantage of government schemes to furlough some staff or introduced a shorter working week or other schemes to try to match likely client demand to lawyer supply. Some lawyers will, at least temporarily, reinvent themselves as restructuring or insolvency specialists.

Although there are clearly challenges for law firms, it is important for firms to consider how they should position themselves as Covid-19 and its aftermath unfolds. With other sectors suffering acutely and other professionals dying in the performance of that vocation, lawyers have to respond. Simply put, they must answer this question ‘Daddy, what did you do in the Covid-19 pandemic?’

It is in this context that firms need to redouble their commitment to pro bono work. They need to be proactive, imaginative and engaged in efforts to help their local communities to cope with the difficulties. This may include encouraging furloughed and short-term working staff to volunteer in local assistance programmes, supporting legal advice centres (with personnel and funding), teaming up with clients to provide essential goods to the vulnerable or seconding lawyers to chambers of commerce and other trade bodies to assist small businesses access business support programmes or otherwise navigate the crisis. Some law firm leaders such as Brad Karp of Paul Weiss have made clear their commitment to such initiatives. We need lawyers across the world to engage and develop a range of programmes to help their communities during the immediate pandemic and in the subsequent efforts to rebuild.

We do not know if the pandemic will fundamentally change the relationships between and expectations of governments, business and citizens. However, assuming a rapid return to ‘normal’ pre-crisis dynamics may be naive.

Lawyers have a simple choice. Get with the programme, get engaged and really show your commitment and ability to make a difference or sit back and be seen as money-obsessed fat cats profiting from the misery of others. We will face the consequences of this choice for decades to come.


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