“It’s a fantasy to think pro bono could fill the legal aid gap:” Lawyer 2B meets DLA’s head of international pro bono

We met up with Nicolas Patrick, head of international pro bono at DLA Piper, to talk to him about he managed to wangle a job doing solely pro bono at a large corporate law firm

How did you become interested in pro bono work?

I started off at Phillips Fox, which is now part of DLA Piper, in its Sydney office.

I worked in the insurance team and in commercial litigation but had never wanted to practise at a corporate firm. I wanted to do legal aid work and saw myself working in law centre. I studied law because I wanted to help people.

I started as a volunteer at a legal centre when I was still at university and worked there right through university and through my first years at the firm. By the time I was a second-year lawyer I was also sitting on the board at this large community law centre. In that capacity I was able to see what other firms were doing as pro bono and I could see we weren’t doing enough and began to set up the pro bono practice. 

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“If law firms want to keep lawyers who are interested in pro bono they have to support them.”

How did you become head of pro bono?

I set up the practice for Sydney first and then for the whole of Australia. After a couple of years juggling both I got 50 per cent budget relief, so I only had to make half the amount of money I was previously making. After a year doing 50/50, the firm asked if I would do it full time because at that time the Australian pro bono practice was notionally worth about $8m a year.

A couple of years later I was made a partner. At that point I had only pro bono work, and it was on the strength of that that I was made up.

How are legal aid cuts affecting pro bono practices?

One of the aspects of the conversation around pro bono that gets quite warped is about what pro bono work gets done. It is very important for people to understand that more than 80 per cent of pro bono work done by City firms is for charities or organisations in developing countries. There is very little end-to-end casework being done for individuals.

It is a fantasy to think pro bono could fill the legal aid gap. There is a complete mismatch in terms of skills and geography. We want to make sure that the most vulnerable people aren’t left without help and we also want to make sure that we are catching data about people so that we can campaign to bring legal aid back for certain areas and make sure that there is an accurate picture of the situation.

It happened in Australia: in demonstrating the need for homeless people to have legal aid we have brought funding back for that group.

How do you think pro bono will develop in the coming years?

As pro bono got to a size and scale when it required full time management, firms in US and Australia started to have partners managing it full-time. In the UK, it is just beginning to get to that stage. It is so crucial that law students know that these jobs exist.

If law firms want to keep lawyers who are interested in pro bono they have to support them. It is no different to any other area. The risk if you are not providing a career path for pro bono lawyers is that they get poached by another firm and walk away with your pro bono clients.

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