LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An increasing number of law firms around the world are providing free legal assistance to good causes, experts said, as Thomson Reuters Foundation launched a global index of pro bono work.
The index, based on data from over 100 firms, representing 36,000 lawyers in 69 countries, showed they donated 1.55 million hours of free legal support last year worth $388 million.
The survey, which identifies how much pro bono or unpaid work law firms are doing on a country by country basis, is the first effort to capture international trends in the sector and will be updated annually.
The index was launched by TrustLaw, a service run by the foundation that matches lawyers offering pro bono work with charities and social enterprises requiring legal help.
“Every day we witness increasing demand for pro bono projects, and our network continues to expand to countries which traditionally haven’t encouraged the practice, from Saudi Arabia to Uruguay to mainland China,” said Monique Villa, CEO of Thomson Reuters Foundation and TrustLaw founder.
U.S. law firms that took part in the survey reported that lawyers gave 74 pro bono hours per year on average, Australia reported 45, South Africa 33 and England and Wales 21. Respondents also came from India, China and countries in Latin America and the Middle East.
On average the lawyers devoted about one week of their time to helping charities, non-profits, social enterprises, and/or individuals free of charge, and the most popular sectors included access to justice, economic development and microfinance, and human rights.
Rebecca Greenhalgh, pro bono manager at Debevoise & Plimpton, described how her firm was providing free help for 300,000 people who were evicted from their homes in a poor Lagos neighbourhood in the 1990s and were taking their compensation and resettlement case to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
The firm is also helping a number of parties in a constitutional challenge to Belize legislation that effectively criminalises homosexual activity, and it has been assisting on a similar case in Singapore.
TrustLaw Director Alisha Miranda told a briefing attended by pro bono leaders from international law firms in London that the survey painted a very promising picture.
“You see a market that is thriving. I think there is a willingness to do this more professionally as a whole and you see international firms taking a lead in this,” she added. “I would be willing to put some money down on the fact that we will see this go up next year.”
Nicolas Patrick, head of pro bono at DLA Piper, said the internationalisation of the legal profession was helping spread the pro bono culture found in countries like Britain and the United States.
“I was in Malawi last week and every lawyer in Malawi knows what pro bono is and talks about the pro bono work they do,” Patrick said.
He said pro bono conferences had sprung up in Vietnam, Hong Kong, Poland, Spain, Germany and France. The attorney general in India, seen as a big growth area, has called for lawyers to do more pro bono.
Hannah Tye, pro bono manager at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, welcomed greater transparency in the sector, but warned that the growth of pro bono must not become a justification for reducing publicly funded expert legal help for individuals “otherwise access to justice and the rule of law will be the ultimate losers”.
One reason why the United States, Australia and South Africa lead the field is attributed to the introduction of national targets by their law societies. For instance, lawyers in Australia are expected to do 35 hours pro bono per year.
Pro bono leaders said they would welcome something similar in Britain.
The index highlighted other factors that tend to boost pro bono. Lawyers for whom pro bono counts towards their remuneration perform more hours than those without that incentive.
Lawyers in firms with a pro bono coordinator or committee each carry out nearly 34 hours free work a year on average. In firms with no coordinator the figure is 22.6 hours.
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