Newsletter – November 2021

Spotlight on… the benefits of pro bono work

This week is national Pro Bono Week and it’s a great moment to reflect on what pro bono work is and the benefits of undertaking pro bono for legal practitioners.

What is pro bono?

People often ask me this question. The term itself derives from the Latin phrase “pro bono publico” meaning “for the public good”. I personally think that the phrase can be a little confusing as it doesn’t shed much light on what pro bono actually encompasses. Whilst there isn’t a universally agreed definition, in essence pro bono work is legal work, conducted for no (or low) fee. This includes advising clients who would otherwise find it difficult to obtain access to justice, or providing legal or policy advice to charities or not-for-profits.

Importantly, pro bono is a distinct discipline from broader CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiatives, which include charitable giving and non-legal social impact work, for example: school mentoring programs, volunteering at a not-for-profit, or fundraising. These are really important social activities, but as they are not legal work, they are not considered pro bono – at least not in the strict sense of the term.

Why do pro bono?

The most obvious reason is to help give back to society. There is no better feeling than knowing that you have used your skills as a lawyer to benefit those in genuine need. Aside from altruism there are other benefits too – pro bono can help you to learn new legal skills, build relationships and improve your own wellbeing. There really is no downside. 

What’s been my pro bono journey?

I have always had a strong interest in helping the community around me and was first involved in providing legal advice to those lacking access to justice whilst I was at university. I then spent six months of my legal training on secondment to the Mary Ward Legal Advice Centre – a legal advice clinic based in Holborn.

This was, and remains, perhaps the most eye-opening and satisfying experience of my entire legal career. Being able to provide advice to people who in many cases had spent years fighting the system, with no one in their corner, was incredibly satisfying.

It also seemed to me that many of the issues that I saw could have been resolved, at a far earlier stage, if only the client and the relevant counterparty had been able to have an open discussion. But unfortunately, red tape and admin processes, however well designed, can act as a blocker in the communications process. Matters then escalate and tensions build with the result that what starts out as a simple issue, can develop into a major problem and a significant legal issue. It is not an exaggeration to say that in some cases, a visit to the clinic was the first time in years that anyone had actually listened to the client’s story. In the meantime the impact on their mental health and family life had often been very significant indeed.

This secondment had a strong impact on me. Ever since then, I have been engaged heavily in pro bono work. First as a dispute resolution lawyer at Linklaters in London and later at Simmons & Simmons. As I become more senior I was able to take on a greater leadership role in the cases and eventually became the co-lead of the Simmons international pro bono team, alongside my practice as a fee-earning dispute resolution partner.

In that time, I have been fortunate enough to work on a vast range of pro bono projects: everything from advising individuals in local county court proceedings through to multi-jurisdictional international human rights projects. I think my career highlight is probably the work I undertook helping the Maasai in Tanzania with their land rights disputes. I travelled to the region and spent time staying and collaborating with the community leaders, working to have their land tenure recognised and to assist in agreeing contractual relationships with those looking to operate commercial ventures on the Maasai’s territory.

I have now embarked on the next stage of my own pro bono journey, having joined Norton Rose Fulbright Australia as their first full-time dedicated pro bono partner. I’m incredibly excited at being able to spend all of my time developing the pro bono practice nationally and working with my colleagues across our global network on international pro bono programmes. 

How can you get into pro bono?

If you have an interest in pro bono a good place to start is within your own firm or business. Depending on its size, it may already have its own pro bono program which you can join. If it doesn’t, you could consider taking the lead on setting up a pro bono initiative yourself. If that isn’t viable, it is still possible to volunteer to take on pro bono work through other organisations such as community clinics, court-based programmes or LawWorks.

Finally, I would say that everyone’s pro bono journey is different. The real satisfaction from this type of work is the opportunity to help people, using your legal skills, in whatever field you feel most comfortable. If you haven’t tried pro bono before, I’d invite you to give it a go – it will broaden your horizons and I’m pretty confident that you won’t regret it.

Chris Owen, National Pro Bono Partner, Norton Rose Fulbright Australia. Chris is a solicitor qualified in both England and Wales and Western Australia.

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