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How (and why) pro bono improves the profession

Come 2023, BigLaw firms should be putting in place pro bono targets and increasing their pro bono offerings — or risk falling by the wayside.

A s the legal profession across the country collectively stepped up its game this year, Lawyers Weekly spoke to one firm that experienced record growth, which emphasised the importance of having done so.

In October, Holding Redlich reported a significant increase in pro bono activity for the 2021–22 financial year, with an average of 38.5 hours per lawyer across hundreds of cases — totalling almost 10,000 hours and exceeding its pro bono target.

This achievement was, in part, due to the firm’s pro bono program, which Holding Redlich national pro bono manager Guy Donovan said wasn’t built overnight.


“A sustainable pro bono program in a large firm takes time to build, and a key part of that is to appropriately match up the firm’s skills and expertise, capacity, priority areas and the interests of its lawyers. There is also the need to find the best balance between work for individuals and that for organisations (not-for-profits and charities), and work [that] the firm performs independently as ‘Holding Redlich files’ and that performed in partnership with community legal centres,” he explained.

“We believe that we have a sustainable and balanced pro bono program with work ranging from large-scale public interest litigation to advice clinics with our community legal centre partners. This work encompasses all of our areas of commercial practice and a number of priority areas.

“Our pro bono program is a fundamental part of the firm’s legal practice. Holding Redlich’s strong commitment to human rights and social justice is part of the firm’s DNA. Our pro bono program is an integral part of our work and culture in fulfilling this commitment.”

Those priority areas include seeking justice for First Nations peoples, as well as the firm’s work with refugees and asylum seekers. This work has encompassed a number of important cases, such as acting on behalf of the Ngurai Illum Wurrung, Waywurru and Dhudhuroa traditional owner groups in successful proceedings, challenging the state of Victoria’s decision to enter into an agreement that would extinguish their native title rights; and providing commercial legal advice to a number of Aboriginal community art centres, including Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre in northern Queensland.

“There is no shortage of work in these areas, and it often matches well with the expertise and interests of our lawyers,” Mr Donovan added.

“Importantly, the firm has a long history of performing pro bono work, and this has created a strong pro bono culture. In practical terms, this means that there is an expectation from the firm’s leaders that pro bono work is an essential part of the practice of our lawyers. This allows our pro bono work to be spread across the firm nationally and ensures that all practice areas participate in our pro bono program.”

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Holding Redlich delivers nearly 10,000 hours of pro bono work in FY22

National firm Holding Redlich recorded a significant increase in pro bono activity for financial year 2022, committing an average of 38.5 hours per lawyer across hundreds of cases relating to Indigenous communities, refugees, at-risk women and youth, and the elderly. 


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The wider Australian legal industry has also stepped up over the last year in terms of pro bono hours, with the Australian Pro Bono Centre’s 15th Annual Performance Report showing that a “record” number of hours were completed across the profession in FY22.

The report showed that Australian lawyers, barristers, law firms and in-house teams completed a “record total” of 645,509 hours of pro bono work, a 0.55 per cent increase on the 641,966 hours of pro bono legal work in the 2021 financial year, as well as that completed in FY20.

This is in stark contrast to 2018, when the profession had only completed 414,844 hours of pro bono work.

And whilst involvement in pro bono work is not mandatory in Australia, Australian Pro Bono Centre (APBC) chief executive officer Gabriela Christian-Hare said that those in the Australian legal sector have “assumed a collective obligation” to make it a priority and to, subsequently, help address social disadvantage.

“Involvement in pro bono work is important because, every day, there are thousands of Australians who simply cannot access the legal system and are therefore placed in a position of dire disadvantage. They are left without redress when evicted from their homes, when they lose their jobs, when their utilities get cut off or when they are trying to put forward their case to remain in the country as refugees,” she told Lawyers Weekly.

“In addition to assisting individual clients, pro bono work is also important to support charities and not-for-profits to, in turn, serve their own clients. Lawyers have unique skills and are, therefore, in a privileged position to help those in need, but unfortunately, the cost of legal services is very high and beyond the reach of many. Coupled with that, our publicly funded legal system is wanting, leaving many without the assistance they need. This is where pro bono work can make a real difference.”

Holding Redlich has seen its program benefit communities and disadvantaged clients — with Mr Donovan even asserting that “at its most critical, pro bono work can save lives”.

“All pro bono work is beneficial in the sense that it is provided in circumstances where that legal assistance would not otherwise be available. Even advising someone that they don’t have a claim can be beneficial in that it provides clarity and may allow that person to concentrate on other aspects of their life,” he added.

“We regularly act on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers in circumstances where our intervention has prevented our clients from facing death or serious harm. Recent work has included preparing visa applications for people at risk from the Taliban in Afghanistan. We have also acted on behalf of refugees on Nauru and have assisted our clients to access lifesaving medical treatment in Australia.”

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Another ‘record’ year of pro bono, despite some large firms ‘lagging’

Individual solicitors, barristers and small law firms led the charge in undertaking pro bono hours in financial year 2022, showing that such efforts are firmly embedded in the “new normal”. This said, some BigLaw firms are falling behind, even though larger firms contributed the majority of pro bono hours this past year.


“There is no shortage of work in these areas, and it often matches well with the expertise and interests of our lawyers.”

These kinds of cases are examples of the way in which pro bono work can help increase access to justice — and why the majority of Australian lawyers and firms have upped their pro bono hours.

“The legal professional has a responsibility to uphold the rule of law. An important part of this is helping to ensure that individuals who may not be able to afford to pay for a lawyer have access to justice. Our pro bono practice allows our lawyers to fulfil this professional responsibility,” Mr Donovan added.

“The firm recognises that pro bono is an important component of a lawyer’s professional responsibility. Pro bono legal services are the unique professional contribution that lawyers can make to further access to justice and to promote the public interest. The firm is committed to providing opportunities for its lawyers to make a positive contribution to the community through the use of their legal skills.”

To this end, BigLaw firms should be meeting the National Pro Bono Target each year — and whilst Ms Christian-Hare said that the APBC support firms at varying stages of their pro bono journeys, there is no longer a valid excuse for firms not consistently undertaking pro bono work.

Law firm, ILP, solicitor, and barrister signatories to the Target agree to provide at least 35 hours of pro bono legal services per lawyer, per year, with in-house signatories committing to 20 hours.

“It’s important to recognise the efforts of the large law firms, [which] collectively provide over 90 per cent of total pro bono hours nationally. However, with only 39 per cent of those large law firms achieving the National Pro Bono Target in FY2022, some firms are clearly not sufficiently prioritising pro bono work. Excuses no longer wash,” Ms Christian-Hare submitted.

“The sector has continued to evolve over the last 20 years to the point where there are now over 100 people in dedicated legal pro bono positions nationally, including 19 dedicated pro bono partners or whose role is predominantly pro bono-focused. Some of the lagging firms may downplay this professional responsibility, and some may still be wondering what the commercial return on investment is. A rising number of young, socially conscious lawyers want opportunities to give back, even if they pursue a very commercial route.

“Government clients, and increasingly corporate clients, of BigLaw are expecting that these firms will not just sign the Target but use their best efforts to meet or exceed it. While it’s not only about counting hours, performance against the Target is a firm indication of the extent to which pro bono is prioritised. Firms that continue to drag their heels will soon be at a competitive disadvantage.”

In terms of how firms that aren’t meeting the Target can improve, Ms Christian-Hare’s advice was to ensure there is widespread support for pro bono work throughout the firm, particularly at the top, appoint a dedicated pro bono senior leader and draft a pro bono policy with clear parameters and expectations.

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“If there’s one thing that’s required, it’s a change in the mindset of the managing partnership of the lagging firms. Pro bono shouldn’t be a soft adjunct to ‘real’ fee-earning work that’s undertaken only if and when lawyers have time. The partnerships of leading Target signatory firms have made pro bono work a core part of their lawyers’ everyday practice across all levels of seniority. It’s central to the culture of their firms and so part and parcel of work at those firms that it’s fully integrated into performance appraisals and prospects for promotion,” she said.

“To get the ball rolling quicker, [firms should] ensure there is broad engagement of staff. This comes from surveying staff about their pro bono interests and understanding their skill sets, ideally providing full billable credit for their pro bono work and ensuring that pro bono involvement is expected and formally integrated into performance reviews.”

Firms can also set themselves a firm-wide budget and internal pro bono benchmark, in addition to beginning to develop relationships with pro bono referral organisations and community partners to “ensure a solid stream of pro bono matters”.

“The moral, ethical and financial cases for pro bono are clear. From a financial perspective, government panel arrangements, the expectations of commercial clients and the cultural benefits that are created in a workplace by contributing positively to society make a compelling case for a strong pro bono program,” Mr Donovan said.

“The important aspects of a pro bono practice for firms that may be struggling to meet targets are to ensure strong leadership from the top in support of the pro bono program, the hiring of dedicated pro bono staff to manage the program and to build a structured program that provides opportunities and encourages contributions from all across the firm.”

When asked about the future of the firm’s pro bono practice, Mr Donovan said there are a variety of key practice areas Holding Redlich will continue to focus on, in addition to implementing new legal tech.

“In terms of our practice areas, we will continue to focus on work seeking justice for First Nations peoples and our work with refugees and asylum seekers. Climate change is likely to continue to present opportunities and increase demand for pro bono work.

“This includes climate policy work, climate litigation and legal needs arising from extreme weather events such as floods and bushfires. Further, increasing numbers of displaced people due to the impacts of climate change are likely to increase the need for pro bono assistance in the migration space,” he said.

“The use of technology in the provision of legal services is becoming more prevalent generally. In the pro bono space, it is also becoming better utilised in connecting those in need of free legal help with firms that have the capacity and expertise to assist.”

Moreover, pro bono work can mean that lawyers better understand their communities and the challenges they face, resulting in increasingly capable lawyers.

“It’s a privilege to perform pro bono. Practising pro bono law can fulfil a sense of duty and provide tremendous professional satisfaction. In this way, firms that provide pro bono services can assist the most vulnerable in our society and also provide a rewarding and fulfilling workplace,” Mr Donovan concluded.

“Performing pro bono work can also assist lawyers to better understand the world and society around them. For instance, working with vulnerable young people can lead to a better understanding of the challenges that young people face and why those challenges may be difficult to overcome. In turn, this can help develop a more well-rounded and better-skilled lawyer.”

“It’s a privilege to perform pro bono. Practising pro bono law can fulfil a sense of duty and provide tremendous professional satisfaction.”
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