The national survey of pro bono legal work by solicitors released by the National Pro Bono Resource Centre last week contains important messages for management at larger commercial firms about what is required to build a genuine pro bono culture with employed solicitors.
Certainly, with 887 respondents or less than 2.5 percent of admitted practitioners, the survey results may not be statistically significant. We should be slow to take up the survey's suggestion that solicitors across the board average 42½ hours a year of pro bono legal work. The real number is likely to be much lower.
However, the responses provide fascinating insights into how solicitors feel about pro bono and why many of them do not do more.
These insights apply in particular to larger commercial firms, with almost half of the survey respondents being employed solicitors at firms with more than 40 lawyers, and more than half coming from firms with offices in more than one Australian jurisdiction.
As with solicitors in all parts of our profession, lawyers at the larger commercial firms want to do pro bono work. Almost all survey respondents (94 percent) believe solicitors should perform pro bono work and 87 percent of respondents support a voluntary pro bono goal to encourage all lawyers to aspire to pro bono legal work.
This second figure contrasts with the failure by a number of leading firms to sign up to the National Pro Bono Resource Centre's national pro bono inspirational target.
Obviously, signing onto the target is a strong signal to lawyers and graduates that a firm supports their desire to perform pro bono work. However, the survey suggests there are other ways in which management can ensure pro bono becomes a real part of their firm's culture.
When asked about what action could be taken by their firm to encourage more pro bono work, the top five responses were "recognition for pro bono work in performance appraisals", "giving full credit for pro bono work", "clearer support from the firm", "more appreciation/recognition of my pro bono work" and "counting approved pro bono hours as billable hours".
This is hardly surprising, given the survey reveals that there is often a significant gulf between the pro bono rhetoric of firm leaders and how they actually regard the legal work performed by their lawyers in the firm's name on a pro bono basis.
Lots of firms now talk about a commitment to pro bono.
However, only one-third of respondents were able to say that their firm took pro bono work into account in their financial targets. One-quarter said their firm looked at pro bono contribution when considering promotion and advancement and a meagre one-fifth of respondents could say that pro bono work was looked at during salary reviews.
Perhaps the reported consideration by the federal government to include pro bono contribution as a tender requirement for government legal work will prompt commercial firms to revisit the value they place internally on pro bono legal work.
The national survey results underline that in 2008, the employed solicitors at large firms really do see the performance of pro bono work as an essential part of their professional responsibility.
However, the survey indicates these solicitors want more than just the chance to perform pro bono legal work. Instead of lip service to a pro bono ideal from their employers, they want their pro bono work to be recognised as real work, of real value.
This was written by David Hillard and was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 29 February 2008