Why the UK’s big law firms still need to be clearer about their pro bono activity

It’s National Pro Bono week. On Monday, representatives from the Legal Services Board, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board expressed concerns about any possible introduction of mandatory pro bono targets.

This harks back to comments earlier in the year by Justice secretary Michael Gove, who said: “One thing that struck me is that there are people in senior solicitors’ firms and in our best chambers who are not doing enough, given how well they have done out of the legal system, to support the very poorest – they need to do more.

The thing about pro bono targets is that we assume we already know what firms are doing (or not doing) when it comes to pro bono, and that we could create a policy about pro bono targets based on evidence. The problem is that we actually know very little, across the market, about what firms are doing.

This summer we reviewed the websites of the top 100 English law firms to find out what the firms say they are doing by way of pro bono. We found that most firms (88 per cent) say something on their websites about CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) but far fewer had specific sections dedicated to pro bono: all of the top 10 firms have pro bono sections, but only around half of those ranked between 11 and 100 also have pro bono sections to their websites.

The larger the firm, the more information was available about its pro bono work and the more likely it was to make a distinction between pro bono and more general CSR activities. Where firms do say something about pro bono, they often mix this in with wider community giving activities (charitable donations, reading with children, building homes for those in need etc).

We think this mixing together is a mistake. Community giving activities by law firms can serve very important functions. But isn’t a lawyer’s time far more usefully spent advising someone who is about to lose their home, or their children, on what their legal rights are on a pro bono basis? Aren’t lawyers the best placed to provide free legal advice?

We might even argue that the professional status of being a lawyer comes with a corresponding obligation to use those lawyerly skills for the public good. While we accept that pro bono efforts by the largest law firms can only ever amount to a drop in the ocean of unmet legal need, that drop is better than nothing.

From our review of law firm websites, we saw that 82 per cent of the firms ranked 51 to 100 had a section on their website dedicated to CSR activity. However, only 57 per cent of the same group had a section dedicated to their pro bono efforts. All of the top ten firms had separate sections for both pro bono and CSR.

With the exception of the very largest firms, it seems to us that pro bono is not yet treated (in public at least) as a distinct part of English law firms’ CSR activity. This caused us some difficulty when trying to establish how much time firms spend on pro bono, as many of the firms we looked at did not distinguish between hours spent on pro bono work and those spent on other community giving activities. Notwithstanding this, we did identify some interesting trends.

There was a significant difference between the amounts of information disclosed about pro bono and community giving practices among the top 10 firms, compared to the remaining 90.

Nine out of the top 10 disclosed how many hours had been spent by their staff on pro bono and community giving activities (a combined total of 653,420 hours for those nine firms). Only 12 of the remaining 90 firms shared this information (resulting in a combined total of 62,023 hours for those 12).

From the limited information available, it seems that firms outside of the top 10 commit significantly fewer hours to pro bono work and community giving overall.  Of course, this will be due to some extent to the relative size of the firms and will also be skewed by the fact that some international firms disclose global figures rather than UK contributions only.

If we want to have a debate about pro bono targets, and about the role large law firms could play in alleviating unmet legal need, we need first to better understand exactly what is (and what isn’t) being done pro bono. Our review suggests that large law firms could do much better to tell the outside world, via their websites, about their contributions.

Is one way forward to compel large firms to disclose their annual pro bono hours? 

Steven Vaughan is a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s law school and Linden Thomas oversees its pro bono programme.