Partners reject calls for pro bono ranking but believe it would help

Disclosure divides profession with partners at US-based firms backing moves to rank and publish firms’ pro bono commitments, while UK partners are still to be convinced. Claire Ruckin reports

Senior lawyers remain deeply ambivalent regarding attempts to rank and disclose pro bono activity despite a clear majority believing such initiatives would boost commercial firms’ non-profit activities.

This is the key finding of the latest Big Question survey, which found that 63% of respondents believe that ranking firms’ commitments to pro bono would increase the level of pro bono work undertaken. A further 9% said that such a league would ‘greatly increase’ pro bono activity, while 28% believed it would have no effect or a negative impact.

However, many senior lawyers still oppose such disclosure, with 37% of respondents claiming to have ‘mixed feelings’ over such a move, while a further 23% were either ‘against’ or ‘strongly against’ it. Forty percent said they were in favour, including 7% of respondents that said they were ‘strongly in favour’.

CMS Cameron McKenna dispute resolution partner Susan Barty said: “Generally, transparency is a good thing but I am not convinced league tables are an effective measure of pro bono. Any league tables are difficult but more so in pro bono where it would be hard to standardise firms’ efforts. Having said that, it might increase the level of a firm’s commitment to pro bono as they will make sure their figures look as good as can be.”

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer litigation partner Paul Lomas (pictured) commented: “Pro bono is something you do voluntarily and genuinely. Rankings could turn the process into a competitive activity whereby firms try to seek credit for and warp work undertaken in order to look good.

“This is not what pro bono should be about. Sometimes you do things because they are the right thing to do and you can lose that when you seek public credit for it.”

The poll of senior lawyers also found strong misgivings over whether it was possible to construct a robust model to rank not-for-profit activities. Nearly one in three respondents (30%) said it would be ‘very difficult’ to come up with a workable model, with a further 47% believing it would be ‘quite hard’.

The findings did, however, reveal widely differing attitudes between partners at UK law firms, who were generally against disclosure of pro bono commitments, and a more positive reaction from partners at US-based law firms, where such initiatives are well established.

David Ryan (pictured left), managing partner at Pinsent Masons, said: “I would imagine it would require quite a lot of work to come up with a workable model. While there are certain absolute measurements, such as hours spent, it is far harder to measure the impact of what you are doing, which can be more important.”

Lovells disputes partner Nicholas Cheffings commented: “Simply measuring hours spent (which incidentally would discriminate against smaller firms) is not the ideal measure of commitment. The real test must surely be to attempt to identify what benefits the hours spent have brought to disadvantaged communities, individuals or charitable organisations. Ultimately, the only relevant question is: ‘did you make a difference?’.”

Meanwhile, 17% of lawyers questioned thought pro bono rankings would have a considerable impact on recruitment at a junior level, while in
comparison 62% of respondents thought rankings would have a minor positive impact on recruitment.

Ryan added: “Ranking pro bono activities would have a very positive impact on a law firm’s ability to recruit at a junior level in terms of both lawyers and business support staff.”

Lomas countered: “Recruits are interested if a firm does pro bono work and if they do it well it is attractive toapplicants.

“However, recruits are smart and will use their own due diligence to work out what a firm’s commitments are. I doubt whether they would take league tables at face value.”

Davies Arnold Cooper disputes partner Steven Friel commented: “Pro bono work is indeed to be encouraged, and those lawyers and firms that undertake worthwhile voluntary work should be lauded and recognised for so doing. As with any other profession, and perhaps more so, we lawyers have certain duties to the community at large.”

However, he warned: “To encourage those lawyers who do not yet undertake pro bono work, we should appeal to their sense of good-natured professionalism and not employ the threat of naming and shaming.”

What the partners said

“When you scratch the surface lots of partners and staff are already undertaking some form of voluntary commitments, both inside and outside of the workplace. Formalising this can prove difficult as it involves disclosure of matters (benevolence) which generally people prefer to remain quiet about. However, when you move to a highly-organised, measurable objective of the firm – including setting ‘pro bono’ targets as part of personal developement plans – it becomes a different animal altogether.”

“Ranking pro bono commitments is taking something done for the public good and converting it into something that is done for the benefit of law firm PR. It risks turning pro bono into another tick box exercise. Successful pro bono work matches the skills of an enthusiatic volunteer to the needs of a client. Ranking results in targets and quotas will inevitably result in the coercion of fee-earners to take on pro bono work. This is bad for the fee-earner, bad for the client and ultimately bad for the firm.” Ed Weeks, partner in charge of CSR, Cripps Harries Hall

“Although league tables may rank firms by the number of hours they spend on pro bono work, there is no independent audit available to assess whether such figures are raliable. Nor can they properly assess the quality of the work undertaken. Some firms classify certain marketing activities as pro bono simply because there was a benefit to a client for which no charge was made. There is also no way of measuring whether a firm’s pro bono commitment lies at the heart of its culture or whether it is simply being undertaken as a box ticking exercise.”

“What individual lawyers get up to by way of ‘pro bono’ is a matter for them alone. We do not need to create yet more non-jobs by having someone create another league table.”

“A league table would only encourage law firms to grandstand. Normally it is better to encourage partners on an individual basis to do charitable works and most will. Not every pro bono activity warrants a photo opportunity and it would be a shame if a league table led to a focus on only those pro bono activities that do.” Roger Blears, senior partner, Martineau

“My firm encourages all lawyers to devote at least 50 hours to pro bono work each year and places no limit on the number of pro bono hours which can be worked. This commitment is founded on the view that the legal profession has a moral obligation to assist those in need who cannot afford to pay for such services, or to those who could pay but by doing so would divert funds from causes that benefit society. The firm encourages all legal staff to participate in this fundamental aspect of its culture. It has adopted a formal policy and has implemented procedures designed to encourage, evaluate and reward pro bono work including featuring pro bono on the assessment forms for trainees and associates. Pro bono work offers a valuable opportunity for personal and professional growth – for example the opportunity for junior lawyers to work directly with clients and access to advocacy opportunities and, for more senior lawyers, the opportunity to step outside their usual ‘box’. Across the firm as a whole, pro bono hours recorded were 83,697 in 2007 and 52,428 in the first half of 2008. In London we have seen considerable growth in fee earner hours recorded since a formal pro bono programme was first introduced in August 2006. During the first half of 2008 a greater number of hours were recorded than in the whole of 2007, and several new projects were commenced. The London office was recently nominated for a pro bono award by LawWorks. Our US and International offices are involved in a wide variety of pro bono work, including the recent successful defence of the right of double amputee Oscar Pistorius to compete against able-bodied athletes in the Olympics by a team of lawyers from the New York, Milan and Johannesburg offices.” Deborah Ruff, chair of the London pro bono committee, Dewey & LeBoeuf

“Sadly, proper input needs commitment, not manufactured enthusiasm. League tables etc are the curse of our times. They put all the emphasis on demonstrating conformity with a desired aim and none on actually achieving anything of practical worth.”

“Pro bono should be on firms’ agendas to start off with regardless of the benefits. However, pro bono can be a win win situation for the firms that take it seriously and do it well. It is a way of allowing individuals and the firm to contribute back. It is good publicity (mostly) and it is an excellent recruitment tool at the more junior level.”

“Pro bono hours can be useful but probably more useful would be giving money to support the work of real professionals in a given field, and it is easier to measure that.”

“The US firms lead the way in pro bono as a result of their state bar requirements. It’s easy to audit by measuring the time lawyers spend on pro bono activities – of course this doesn’t evaluate the effectiveness of their commitments but you can bet that the marketing teams of each firm can help provide some flavour of that. The difficulties come, of course, in balancing pro bono against chargeable work and assessing whether it should feed through into remuneration. LawWorks’ focus on working alongside in-house lawyers or with not-for-profit organisations assists in developing a general business development (and skills development) case for pursuing pro bono activities. UK law firms though need to acknowledge the fears that many junior lawyers have that they’re selling out and use this creatively to push out their pro bono activities. Time spent debt counselling, advising in law centres or assisting in a community project must be seen as a valuable part of each lawyer’s development as it broadens perspectives and, ultimately, creates a more rounded individual.”

“Pro-bono should be done because people want to do it, not because they feel forced to do it, otherwise it starts to devalue what it is all about and it merely can develop into a window dressing exercise.”

“It is right and proper that firms should recognise their obligation to ‘put something back’ in a tangible form, and not merely use smoke and mirrors to create the illusion that this is the case – a proper structure surrounding pro bono activity and measurable outputs helps to ensure that the focus is on the recipients and not the PR machines of the firms involved.”

“Pro bono activity should be strongly encouraged. I believe the culture of firms should be to want to commit time and resources to such activity, not merely a cosmetic exercise to appear to be doing the right thing. This would be assisted by companies, when inviting tenders for work, analysing a firm’s pro bono and CSR credentials and being influenced in their choice by the pro bono and CSR activity the firm can demonstrate.” Steven Baylis, partner, Harvey Ingram

“I head the pro bono initiative at my firm. Whilst it would be a simple matter to identify pro bono formal legal advice and assistance at any given time it would be difficult if not impossible to give accurate details of other charitable work undertaken within the community of a team or individual nature at any given time.”

See Editor’s Blog for more comment.