* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Latin expression “pro bono” meaning “for the good of the people” refers to volunteer work that requires certain professional skills. When it comes to legal services, lawyers and their skills, this volunteer work becomes even more relevant since they are key players and the only possible intermediaries to help vulnerable populations access justice.
Despite the fact that Portugal, similar to several other European countries, , has a state legal aid system that provides support and counsel to individuals without the means to pay for it, this aid has always fallen short of the needs it is trying to meet. I believe that for this reason whilst pro bono legal support has always been a reality in Portugal, it has traditionally been offered on a largely informal basis.
However, in recent years national law firms seem to have become increasingly more committed to providing their lawyers with pro bono opportunities, which I believe has been a key factor in trying to tackle the legal aid shortfall for the abovementioned populations.
Notwithstanding, we find that large national law firms’ pro bono work approach differs in many ways. Not only do their pro bono assistance targets vary according to their position in the community, but also the way they organise their pro bono activities internally is different and we notice that still only a few treat pro bono work as billable work (even if to a certain extent) and/or recognise their lawyers’ efforts in this field by awarding, on an annual basis, individual or collective prizes.
The main law firms in Portugal focus their corporate social responsibility practices on directly assisting vulnerable individuals (on insolvency issues, nationality problems and parental responsibilities, among others) or NGOs that in some way protect these individuals (supporting their creation, re-organisation and their day-to-day activities that typically raise labour, tax, contractual, or organisational issues).
More recently, we are witnessing a change in the social sector mentality in Portugal that seems to be shifting its focus away from dependence on public and private finance to trying to find more autonomous and sustainable ways to provide social answers. Some large law firms in Portugal have welcomed this recent trend of the social community by extending their pro bono legal assistance to social entrepreneurs and by playing an active role in building the social entrepreneurship movement in Portugal and aiding key players to design and shape ground-breaking social investment related issues.
Pro bono work is only one dimension of the corporate social responsibility activities that are currently undertaken by law firms in Portugal. In fact, large law firms in Portugal have also been working on delivering training sessions on the main legal aspects that affect the day-to-day activity of NGOs as a preventive effort to avoid legal problems in the future due to ignorance of the law.
Finally, I would say that an interesting aspect of Pro bono in Portugal nowadays is that there are opportunities for different lawyers and law firms to partner up and work together in order to provide the best possible answers to the different legal needs in this field. And more interestingly, lawyers and law firms seem to be taking these opportunities.
An example of this kind of cooperation is the one facilitated by Pro Bono – Ajuda Legal (http://www.probono.org.pt/) which is the first and only clearinghouse in Portugal matching the needs of vulnerable individuals to law students and lawyers who are able and willing to provide their assistance on a wide range of matters.
Another good example is GRACE (http://www.grace.pt/), a Portuguese non-profit association, founded in 2000 with the mission to promote the concept of corporate social responsibility and citizenship and raise awareness in this field. GRACE has currently more than 100 members that are large, medium and micro-sized enterprises, including some of the national law firms that have taken the opportunity to start working together on a set of best practices for corporate social responsibility in the legal field.
There is still a lot to be done and definitely room for improvement but I would say that, currently, things are looking very promising in the Portuguese (legal) pro bono field.