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6 things to know about Pro Bono


Hello. Welcome to “Whiteboard Wednesday.” And today, I’m going to tell you six things that you need to know about pro bono.

So first and foremost, what is pro bono? So pro bono traditionally means free legal advice.

But it’s not just legal advice that we’re not paid for. There is a market standard for people, that is, individuals or charities, or other types of not-for-profits who are eligible for free legal advice. And so, every time we are considering a pro bono project here at the firm, the first thing we have to do is make sure that that individual or organization meets those market definition tests and is eligible to receive free legal advice.

So number two, why do we do pro bono? There’s all sorts of reasons why we do pro bono. First and foremost, obviously, as lawyers, it’s a fantastic way in which we can give back to the communities in which we work. As a U.S. law firm, especially, we believe in transparency, and we also report our pro bono locally and internationally so that everyone can see the contribution that we make.

I think, as, you know, a modern law firm, there’s also an expectation that we’re giving back in these ways, not just in respect to pro bono but also in terms of charity, in terms of community, in terms of a wider contribution to our communities. I think it’s worth mentioning firm integration, especially, since after coronavirus. I mean, there was many years where we weren’t here working together side by side in a law firm, and we’re all working remotely, and lots of new people joined the firm in that time.

And I would say that pro bono and other community initiatives like that are a really fantastic way that people can get to know each other and to integrate across the firm. The same can, of course, be said when you’re a trainee, in terms of meeting other people from different departments and even different offices. As a junior lawyer, I think, actually, one of the most important things to consider is the excellent training opportunity that pro bono provides.

So we have a really wide range of pro bono opportunities, and with that, that means you can get exposed to all sorts of different areas of law and ways of working, which I think, as a junior lawyer, can be really, really valuable for your training and development. And last but by no means least, a well-functioning pro bono program where people enjoy the work that they do and they feel satisfied with that will actually make you feel more fulfilled as a person and as a lawyer and will make you more engaged and enjoy your time at the firm more.

So a well-functioning pro bono practice is good for the pro bono clients, it’s good for the volunteers, and then, ultimately, it’s good for the law firm as a whole where you do it. So number three, what types of pro bono work can you do here at Shearman’s? Really, the answer is the world is your oyster. It can be big. It can be small.

It can be transactional. It can be research. We try and have a really open and broad-minded pro bono program, because we, as individuals and volunteers, are all diverse. And there’s also lots of different types of individuals that need our help. Here, I’ve listed just a very small pocket of some of the work that we get involved in at the London office here. We’ve got welfare benefits, social finance, family law, and also domestic violence within that, anti-death penalty, environmental law, and inequality.

And as I said, that really is just very light-touch examples of all sorts of stuff that we do. So number four, pro bono work outside your expertise, and I think this is quite important to talk about. We do do pro bono work within our expertise. Our finance lawyers apply themselves to social finance, and corporate lawyers do that in the context of free legal advice for charities.

But if you’re also going to help where the biggest area of legal need is, you’re going to have to help individuals here in the UK, because, since the cuts to legal aid, there’s lots of people who are without pro bono support and, where there’s a lack of legal aid, sadly, will have no access to any kind of legal help, whatsoever. So we, as corporate lawyers who work at an international U.S. law firm, have to reapply our skills and turn our hand to something else to help those who need it most.

And so, now, I’m quite pleased to say that, for our London office, probably roughly 70% of our work is actually for individuals, which is us reapplying our skills for those who need it most. That means you have to have appropriate training and appropriate supervision. But if structured properly, all of us should be able to use our great legal skills for those people who need it most.

Just quite quickly, this one, but how is pro bono different from fee-earning? My answer is it’s largely not, in every other way other than the fee, because we have a legal engagement, we have to do AML checks, we have to do conflict checks, we have to onboard the client, we enter an engagement letter. In every sense of the word, we are entering into a legal engagement as you would in every other aspect of a law firm business.

But the difference is that the client meets the market definition of pro bono, so is eligible for free legal advice, and that we do not charge our fees. In every other sense of the word, it is a legal engagement for us as a firm. Last but by no means least, proposing pro bono clients. So here at Shearman’s, any lawyer can propose a new pro bono client for the firm. And as I’ve already said, there’s lots of clients in need of help, and there’s also an incredible wealth of diverse individuals here at the firm.

We believe that we want people to get involved with pro bono that really matters to them, and so we think everyone should be able to propose their own pro bono client. And provided they meet the test, then I’d be delighted to help onboard them for anyone who suggests them.

That’s it for today. Thank you.