NPBW 2015: Commercial Law Firms Put Under Increasing Pressure to Provide Pro Bono Work

NPBW 2015: Commercial Law Firms Put Under Increasing Pressure to Provide Pro Bono Work

This is the first article in our special series celebrating National Pro Bono Week 2015 to help raise the profile of pro bono work undertaken across the country. Elliot Glover takes a look at what commercial law firms are doing to help those in need and what challenges they are facing.

With the snowballing effects of legal aid cuts, the expectation on commercial law firms to provide pro bono legal services has reached even greater heights: there is an anticipation of responsibility for wealthy City law firms to contribute time and money to issues that require justice, but don’t have the financial support or capacity to attain it. The Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, stated back in June that successful lawyers at City firms should “look into their conscience” and make time to provide assistance in areas of the legal sector which are not so well-funded and fill the gap that was once occupied by legal aid. This expectation is frequently misperceived as the solution for legal aid cuts. In reality, there is a serious mismatch of skills: the vast majority of cases concern immigration, social benefits and welfare, and housing–not areas typically found in the province of most commercial law firms.

The legal aid cuts have had an overwhelming impact on organisations and charities that provide free legal services to people who don’t have the means or resources; thinning the flow of money provided by legal aid is putting greater pressure on free legal clinics as well as law firms to shoulder the extra burden. The work of law firms is now even more valued and needed, where before their pro bono work was more supplementary to that of organisations and charities, rather than the crux of such services.

At the heart of the commercial lawyers’ inability to sometimes provide such support lies in the deep disparity between the acquired skills of the commercial solicitor and the required expertise for complex disputes surrounding immigration and social welfare. Asking an associate working in mergers and acquisitions to assist in a case involving immigration provides no real support compared to a properly-funded lawyer in that particular speciality. The problem is being able to direct resources, which not only includes time and money but also competence and understanding, to areas that require it most. It suggests that the only real help that commercial firms can provide is finance and the lawyers with the relevant expertise. Being a part of the fortunate sector of the legal industry with an abundance of financial resources, commercial firms have been urged to contribute more in supplementing organisations that are currently suffering in the legal aid drought. However, it is naïve to deny that such financial assistance is all that can be contributed for now in order to fund specialised lawyers to provide legal aid.

This support has been felt the most within London. The London Legal Support Trust’s walk raised £650,000, which goes directly to funding legal services. Outside of London, the pro bono climate is rather bleak, where there is a fraction of the support and money pumped into organisations and charities that support justice for all.

The legal industry requires a greater cohesion between the less well-funded organisations and the City giants, and also a better interconnection across all institutions. At my law school, Sheffield School of Law, an initiative has been introduced to encourage students to get involved in underprivileged legal areas. The initiative allows third year students to take modules with organisations such as the Miscarriages of Justice Review Centre as well as Free Law, which provides free legal advice to people who do not have the sufficient resources to afford it. There are also plans to integrate university students into organisations such as South Yorkshire Refugee Law & Justice, which tackles immigration appeals as well as the Sheffield Citizens Advice Bureau. The creation of such a formal link between the University and charitable organisations initiates the attention required by issues borne from the legal aid cuts. The formalisation of such opportunities into a law degree ensures that the volunteers are committed and dedicated to the work they do, along with providing a practical aspect of a law degree that involves applying the law to real world problems.

A recent survey conducted by LawWorks revealed that Law Schools are increasing their pro bono activities, with 85% planning further expansion. There still remains the issue of not having the funding to attain a barrister or solicitor when the dispute later goes to court; the number of volunteers is also limited by the number of qualified lawyers capable of supervising them. This has a causal effect on clients, who seek such services to gain legal advice and security about issues that are currently having detrimental effects on their lives. This enhanced cohesion between different entities within the legal industry is promising, but illustrates the need for a closer alignment between time, resources, and expertise.

Commercial law firms have still done some amazing pro bono work over the past year with top firms contributing to global efforts to eradicate certain issues in developing countries as well as making headlines in the Western world for attaining justice in matters of social inequality. Allen & Overy ended their two-year partnership with AfriKids, which contributed to the improvement of life for street and trafficked children. The partnership provided £832,500 worth of contributions as well as £506,000 worth of legal and non-legal pro bono support. The magic circle firm also announced that it will be commencing a new partnership with Amref Health Africa in Tanzania, which fights to restore the right to education.

Jones Day won the ABA Pro Bono Publico Award for dedicating 10,000 hours and $5m in legal fees to the immigration crisis, which concerned women and children fleeing to the US border in order to escape violence in Central America. US firm Sullivan & Cromwell also made headlines through arguing that a gay couple had a well-founded fear of abuse and persecution if they returned to their birthplace in India. The firm is one of the top contributors to pro bono work with their worldwide offices contributing 65,000 hours to pro bono work between June 2014 and June 2015. They also revealed that they take on 100 new matters each year and currently have over 400 open cases.

Support has been increasing for legal clinics and organisations. It was announced in early October that US firms Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton as well as Goodwin Procter have signed on to support Toynbee Hall Free Legal Advice Centre, the world’s oldest free legal advice centre. The clinic has seen services rise by 92% after legal aid cuts; with yearly costs of £65,000 just to keep the clinic open, it is currently running at a deficit. The firms join Allen & Overy, Ashurst, and Shakespeare Martineau, which already provide volunteers for the centre. There are means by which different areas of the legal industry can coordinate their efforts in a way that ensures that their resources are used in the most efficient manner.

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