24 August 2018

Pro bono: Leading the way

Culture, structure and inclusiveness are key to starting a pro bono programme in a new office, say Jenner & Block lawyers Andrew Vail, Christian Tuddenham and Victoria Fitzpatrick.

For many companies, corporate citizenship is a strategic part of both their daily operations and business ethos, often fueling sales growth and expansion to new markets. In the legal world, pro bono work is often the primary way in which law firms demonstrate their commitment to helping those in need and bettering their communities. Indeed in US legal culture pro bono work is considered a duty and ethical responsibility of the working lawyer.  For example, the American Bar Association’s Model Rule 6.1 asks US lawyers to aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services a year.  And while the Law Society of England and Wales does not set forth a specific hours requirement, it also encourages pro bono work among its member lawyers.

Lessons learned

Despite these standards, many lawyers and law firms continue to struggle in building strong pro bono programs.  Yet for decades, Jenner & Block’s US-based pro bono program has thrived, with the firm being regularly named a top pro bono law firm.  When the firm opened its first international office in London in 2015, however, it faced a new challenge:  how to develop a similarly successful programme from scratch, in a new office with limited resources, in a decidedly different legal market? The experience gained and lessons learned as the firm’s London office designed, established and developed what is today a young but fully fledged pro bono program may be helpful to other similarly situated firms.   

Pro bono lies in the DNA

Jenner & Block is unusual in that a pro bono ethos is built into both the firm’s and its lawyers’ “DNA”.  What this means is that lawyers are attracted to the firm because of its commitment to pro bono and often join with the specific intent to participate in a robust pro bono practice.  By the same token, this is not simply encouraged by the firm, it is expected.  Firm policy sets a minimum annual requirement of 20 pro bono hours per lawyer, although in practice this requirement is exceeded by most lawyers in the firm.  This cultural proclivity is helpful because to establish a successful pro bono program, the office must decide that pro bono is part of everyday practice and not an optional activity.

US versus UK

The background to and environment within which pro bono services are conducted in London differ from the United States in certain important respects. In the United Kingdom, much of the work that receives public funding from central government, known as “Legal Aid”, is the type of work that private-sector law firms in the United States undertake in a pro bono capacity.  For example, in the United Kingdom, immigration or asylum matters, domestic violence issues and almost all criminal cases are eligible for Legal Aid.  This is not to say that those sorts of cases do not benefit from pro bono assistance and, in many most cases, matters that do not qualify for Legal Aid may become available for private-sector assistance. However, it is probably correct to say that a UK lawyer handling pro bono cases will see fewer of these sorts of cases than his or her US equivalent. Whilst it is impossible to generalize, a UK pro bono practice will often involve a significant volume of work for charities, NGOs and other not-for-profit organisations, and particularly those that do not receive government funding or other state subsidy. 

International scope

Another defining feature of the London pro bono sector is its international scope and reach.  Consistent with the city’s status as a leading center for paid legal services, much of the pro bono work that Jenner & Block’s London office undertakes is for overseas clients and/or clients whose work takes them overseas.  In the past three years, the office has acted for clients with interests in, or connections to, Africa, Asia, both South and North America and Europe.

Competition

A further factor is competition.  There is no more competitive legal market than London, which is home to tens of thousands of lawyers and headquarters many of the world’s largest law firms.  The pro bono sector, like any other sector, benefits from this saturated and sophisticated marketplace.  Firms and lawyers vie for the most challenging and high-profile pro bono engagements, and most firms strive to maintain a visible and credible pro bono practice, not least because it is something that many clients today expect from their advisors.

Coordinators

In London, a number of organisations act as pro bono coordinators by inviting public and private organisations to make a request for pro bono assistance to them.  The coordinators screen the matters, collect the key information about the project and create lists of matters that are circulated to their network of law firms on a regular, sometimes weekly, basis.  In some cases, those firms must compete for the opportunity to take on the work.  Following this model, the London office partnered with Advocates for International Development (A4ID) shortly after the office opened, as a means to secure a steady flow of possible work from an early stage.  In addition to being a valuable source of diverse opportunities for pro bono work, another benefit derived from this partnership is that a good number of the engagements tend to be well-defined individual projects (as opposed to open-ended mandates).  This is particularly useful in the start-up phase for a new and relatively small office, as the office can select projects of a size and duration to suit the capacity available within the office and scale up its involvement as the office grows. 

Pro bono model

One of the positive aspects of the firm’s existing US pro bono programme has been the firm’s openness to allow lawyers to choose (within certain criteria) matters of particular interest to them.  At any given time, Jenner & Block’s programme has more than 500 open matters covering a wide diversity of subjects – from asylum and immigration to criminal defense and prisoner’s rights to constitutional rights.  This freedom to choose projects of personal interest is something the London office sees as a model for a healthy ongoing programme.

Structure

Programme structure is vital of course.  As the London office established its programme, the lawyers set structure around it with a view to measuring progress towards objectives, for example by establishing minimum targets for “deal flow” and hours per lawyer, as well as setting regular meetings, various deadlines and milestones.  Training was also critical to begin to integrate people into the programme.  For example, the office conducted disability rights training that allowed interested lawyers to participate and choose possible projects.

Re-imagining the programme

Jenner & Block’s London office started small, with just two lawyers, in 2015.  Thus far, the growth of the new office has necessarily depended upon lateral hiring, which brought with it several opportunities.  Many of the lateral hires – both associates and partners – had prior experience with pro bono at their previous firms.  Their knowledge and existing contacts were important in creating a new program at the London office.  In particular, this combination of past experience and a blank canvas gave the office the opportunity to “re-imagine” the pro bono programme, pursue those strategies and ideas that had been proven at previous firms and focus on pro bono activities that aligned with the values of the office and its people. 

Taking on larger, more complex and longer-term matters becomes more of a reality as critical mass in the office grows.  Today, there are 19 lawyers in the office (and plans for further recruitment), which has allowed the program to develop steadily and to expand in scope and ambition.

Inclusion

Particularly in a small and growing office, inclusion is an important guidepost.  The London office has found ways to include all office personnel in the pro bono program as well as community service initiatives.  For example, everyone is invited to participate in the annual London Legal Walk as well as the office’s Whitechapel Mission efforts, where teams serve breakfast to the underprivileged.  The office also participates in Women’s Refuge Day, donating and distributing clothing to women in need.  Above all, however, Jenner & Block’s London office is finding that consistent and persistent effort is the key to integrating pro bono into the fabric of daily practice.  At the end of the day, the collective will to create a meaningful program is perhaps most critical, and especially so when it is supported by the ethos and culture.

This article was authored by litigator, Andrew Vail who is a partner at Jenner & Block based in Chicago, co-chairs its Pro Bono Committee and is a member of the firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Practice; Solicitor-advocates Christian Tuddenham, a partner in Jenner & Block’s London office, a member of its Pro Bono Committee who also works in the Complex Commercial Litigation Practice and Victoria Fitzpatrick, an associate in London, a member of its Pro Bono Committee who works for the firm’s Investigations, Compliance and Defense Practice. Jenner & Block is a law firm with global reach, with more than 500 lawyers and offices in Chicago, London, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, DC.