Legal Lifeline for Those in Need
1 July 2015 at 11:43 am
An award-winning social enterprise offering “last resort” legal services to those in need was sparked by the generosity of a lone Salvation Army volunteer, writes Nadia Boyce in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Salvos Legal, owned and run by the Salvation Army, recently came out on top at the 2015 Social Enterprise Awards, winning the Large Social Enterprise of the Year category from competitors across Australia.
One person particularly elated to receive the award was Luke Geary, the organisation’s Managing Partner, whose decade of skilled volunteering with the Salvos led to an offer of full-time employment to develop his pro bono work into a larger operation.
Despite receiving no Federal or State Government funding, the organisation has delivered over $35 million worth of free legal services in just under five years with its model charging fees to those who can afford it while waiving fees for those who can’t.
The commercial arm, Salvos Legal, provides commercial legal services including banking and financial, corporate, property, IT and intellectual property advice to clients including local, State and Federal Governments, ASX200 companies and Not for Profit organisations.
Profits are directed to its sister firm, Salvos Legal Humanitarian, which provides free legal advice and representation to clients in need, identified through means testing and eligibility criteria.
Pro Bono Australia News spoke to Luke Geary, who explained why he sacrificed his commercial law career and how his organisation has managed to achieve rapid and sustainable growth.
A Social Destiny
Ten years ago, Geary began regularly volunteering his legal skills to Salvation Army clients. By day he was a successful lawyer in a large commercial firm and in the evenings would travel to Parramatta in Western Sydney to offer his services.
“I did that for about five years as a volunteer,” he recounts. “In 2009, after I’d run about 750 cases for them, they came to me and asked me if I could do it full time on a professional basis.
“I gave back all my clients, resigned from my partnership and came and worked full time for the Salvos. I said to them, ‘If we’re going to do this on a large scale basis, we need to find a way to do this that’s not going to be dependent on Government funding, and not going to be dependent on Salvation Army donor funding.
“I said the best way to do that, is do what lawyers do best, and that’s make money. There’s no reason why we can’t charge some clients and not charge others. Basically the money we charge some clients funds the work we do for others.”
What Geary has built in a short period of time is astounding.
“When we started, it was just me, and now we have 37 employees and 179 volunteers across Sydney and Brisbane.
“We’ve got both employed and voluntary staff sitting together in the same offices. Of the voluntary staff, roughly 60 per cent are admitted solicitors and the balance is a mix of migration agents, paralegals and other admin support.
“In the commercial practice, the volunteer lawyers, graduates and paralegals will assist providing extra resources to the employed staff and help with things like research, contracts and reviewing of documents, while in the free area, the volunteers do a lot of the casework under the supervision of the employed staff.”
The setup is proving to have appeal for many ‘corporate refugees’.
“We’re always looking for smart, professional people looking for something different to help us grow the business,” Geary adds. “Attitude is the thing we look for – people have the desire to work for something young and to build it from the ground up. It takes a certain person who’s not going to be precious but is also going to be really hungry.”
A “Last Resort”
In its humanitarian division, the organisation assists with a range of cases for its funded clients, including crime, family law, debt, housing, social security and migration law.
The assistance offered is intended to be an alternative for those who cannot access existing legal aid services. Geary explains that the financially self-sustaining model also ensures that funding is not needed from the Salvation Army or from Government – freeing up funding for other legal services.
“We see ourselves as a last line of defence because we use a means test to check that clients aren’t able to obtain representation at another already-funded legal service,” he says.
“There’s a number of ways clients come to us. We’ve got a lot of marketing out there, for example with the Law Society, the Bar Association, etc – but also within the Salvation Army. If someone turns up at their welfare or drug and alcohol counselling service they’ve also got our materials and know where we are and so they’ll make a referral to us.
“If someone steps up and says, ‘I’m in court next week for a family law dispute’, we say, ‘if you want us to represent you, we need to see a letter from legal aid rejecting you’ – and then we’ll make an assessment of that person’s circumstances and our understanding of what services are available in the local area as to whether or not the person could get representation elsewhere.
“If they can, we’ll facilitate them getting it, because that means we are free to represent someone who can’t [get alternative representation], but if they can’t, that would make them eligible for representation with us.
“We work quite closely with legal aid and other legal services because we don’t compete for anything with them.”
Salvos Legal is also able to assist its clients with a suite of support services not offered by traditional legal aid, Geary says.
“Probably the main difference between us and legal aid is that we have access to the full armoury of Salvation Army services to help people beyond the law – whether that’s housing, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, counselling, financial management, welfare support, all those sorts of things, ”he says.
“It means that if the person’s got significant issues and we’re just a law firm, we can connect them immediately with our chaplains and their role as social workers is to engage the clients with those other really important areas, so…they can have those issues addressed.
Striving for Scale
Geary and his team have created something unique – but it is that uniqueness, he says, that has made the process of growth and development more difficult.
“[There hasn’t been anything else] like this, and certainly not on this scale,” he says.
“We’ve got a 2020 strategic plan, to get us to about three times our current size in the next five years, so that’s our focus – how we grow the business, and grow our humanitarian services.
“The biggest challenge for us is that there’s no roadmap for what we’re doing. There’s no other firm that has done this, so the issues that we face on a day to day basis – whether its retention of staff, how to market to clients, or how to maintain work-life balance – we can’t look at it and say, ‘Oh, that’s how they did it, let’s copy that’. It won’t work. So the hardest thing is having to work out how to get those things right when no-one else has done it before.”
Part of the growth process will be continuing to grow the organisation’s list of large corporate clients.
“We do say to them, there’s added value for you because you have social impact included in your legal spend.”
“You’ve got to remember, you’ve got to provide a first class service for these companies. We act for some of the biggest companies in Australia, and for Government, and you don’t get it just because you’re able to offer a social outcome, you get it because you’re just as good as your competitors. You have to compete on the quality and the cost with those in the private market.
“Which is tough, but it’s the reality of the world.”
Geary forecasts an easier time for other organisations looking to implement a similar model.
“The fact that our biggest problem was that there wasn’t a roadmap for us won’t be a problem, as there will be one for them,” he says. “Hopefully that will encourage other people to do this.
“Ultimately I think the really simple thing is that the idea is really sensible and as the social economy grows and people are [emboldened] to make decisions about the procurement of professional services with social outcomes.
“I think there are real opportunities for this kind of business, but I think it does need particular champions.”