A Just Cause
14 March 2016 at 10:45 am
Luke Geary founded Australia’s first social enterprise law firm that channels profits from its commercial operation into pro bono cases. Geary is this week’s Changemaker. He spoke to journalist Ellie Cooper.
Recognising that his passion was unsustainable, and the need for pro bono support was immense, Geary worked with the Salvation Army to create a revolutionary firm, Salvos Legal, where he is Managing Partner.
Since 2011, Salvos Legal has used the profits from its commercial work to fund more than 15,000 cases that would have otherwise never been tried.
As this week’s Changemaker, Geary shared his idea for a business model that could reshape the nature of the legal system into one that is more accessible to vulnerable people in the community.
How did you come up with the concept of Salvos Legal?
There’s no simple answer. Before Salvos Legal existed there was another firm that I’d run for the Salvation Army as a volunteer, called Courtyard Legal. I started that in 2005 after a couple of years ad hoc acting in pro bono cases for the Salvation Army and had identified that there was a real ongoing need. And so I did Courtyard Legal on the side of my commercial legal practice, just as a pro bono hobby. I did it at night time, and whenever I had spare time I’d run cases, so it was really not a sustainable thing, it was more of a passion than a profession.
After five years and about 750 cases within Courtyard Legal, the Salvation and I spoke and agreed that it was time to go professional and to do it full-time. We agreed that there was obviously a significant need there, and it aligns well with the Salvation Army’s mission and values. I said, if we’re going to do it, we need to find a way to do it that doesn’t take money away from the rest of the Salvation Army, and which doesn’t take money away from other existing government funded legal services, because there’s no point doing it if, essentially, we’re just duplicating something already out there, or asking donors of the Salvation Army to pay for lawyers.
I put forward to them that there was a way. I said lawyers are really good at making money, why not use it in a good sense – make money but use all that money to pay for the free stuff. Together we developed a plan which involved transactional and advice work for fee-paying clients, so governments, mums and dads, churches and charities, and using all that money to go into a separate company that just does free legal work.
Was a social enterprise law firm a groundbreaking initiative at the time?
Certainly within the legal profession the concept of a social enterprise hasn’t been explored, definitely in Australia and I think largely anywhere else in the world that we’re aware of, and so this was really a new venture. And, of course, for the Salvation Army owning a law firm is a brand new venture that had previously never been explored, so it was very much uncharted territory.
You’re still in the commercial side of law, but does it feel different to working in a traditional law firm?
We’re not an equity partnership, none of us… own the business, we’re simply custodians for the Salvation Army. We’re all employees, so our focus immediately is different to in a traditional, commercial law firm where you are always generating revenue for the benefit of the partners.
What that does is it changes everything within the fabric of the firm’s community. So it changes the way people approach their work, it changes the way they treat each other, it changes how they approach clients, it changes what sorts of people we look for, what sorts of things we value and reward, and what sorts of contributions we recognise. It changes what are our timelines are for growth in terms of how aggressively we pursue growth or how conservatively we pursue it, because our focus is on long-term sustainability not short-term profit.
What impact has Salvos Legal had?
So far we’ve helped in over 15,000 cases for free, which otherwise would never have had any access to government-funded legal services, all without any government funding and all without any ongoing funding from the Salvation Army. So that’s just from the profits generated from our commercial legal work.
We operate from 15 sites between Sydney and Brisbane, and we’re just at the moment looking to operate out of a further major headquarters at a location still to be determined, which will eventually grow to five further offices.
Did you envision that Salvos Legal would be this successful?
I always had a belief that it was a good idea, and I had faith that people would embrace a good idea. When you have an idea and you believe in it you think everyone will immediately believe in it, and so I was hopeful there would be a lot of traction early on. What I found was, because it was such an unusual concept, particularly for a law firm rather than any other type of social enterprise, there was a lot of scepticism and hesitancy, and fear around the risk of it, and around whether or not it would be able to be competitive within the market. So there was a little bit of a slower start than I initially anticipated.
But I couldn’t probably ever had foreshadowed the scale that we currently have, or that which we are well on track to delivering. So we have a strategic plan which will enable us to serve in what we expect now to be over 20,000 cases every year for free. But also we propose to create an incubation and replication model, which will enable us to help other organisations to do the same. And our goal is that, collectively, those that we help and our own directly supported clients will enable over one million cases every year to be seen worldwide. So that’s a realistic and achievable outcome for our current strategy.
When I first came up with the idea, I was thinking very lineally, and I thought the biggest this could ever get was a hundred people working for it in some capacity. Today we have 38 employees and 220 odd volunteers. But we’re recognising that the impact can be far deeper, other than by growing ourselves, through the support we can provide to other social enterprises who want to do the same thing in their own space.
On a personal note, what motivates you to engage with this sort of work?
I guess everyone’s got a story that probably guides some of the decisions that they make at key points in their lives, and I’m not an exception to that. I have a couple of stories that have had a big impact on me from cases I’ve run and experiences I’ve had. They’re principally linked to the fact that I am part of the Salvation Army and that my introduction to the Salvation Army was a very tangible, very real and very compelling experience with an elderly lady who needed a lawyer, and otherwise was going to lose a very important court case. It was to do with her grandchildren and her ability to care for them and the interactions she was having with government at the time who were trying to remove them from her care.
The Salvation Army asked me to assist in that case, it was the first ever case. I started to dig into the fact that it was a very unjust attempt by the government agency to remove the children from her care, and without a great deal of effort I was able to overturn the position of the other parties and give this woman a really positive outcome.
I found that just with the right tools and right interest and faith in the client, you can make some really life changing outcomes appear. And I thought, if I’ve got some gifts in terms of my professional skills and interests, then it’s important that they’re used for the right reasons. I think of that as me seeing what’s achievable if you put your energies and your efforts and your gifts in the right direction.
Lawyers often get a bad rap – do you get frustrated by the nature of the legal system, or do you think more lawyers should do engage in this kind of work?
I know lawyers get a bad rap, there are a lot of very good lawyers who don’t get any attention, so I don’t want to suggest that we’re the only ones out there doing something, because there are a lot out there who are doing a lot of good.
Ideas like what we do are really important because you have a constantly shifting position of government in the delivery of social services, expecting more to be done by Not for Profits, and there are a lot of Not for Profits out there who could do the same sort of thing that we do but are lacking a champion within them. And the frustrating thing is that I know there are plenty of champions out there within the legal profession but that the risk to take to do this is significant, and people sometimes don’t have enough support or confidence in themselves to do it when the reality is they certainly could.
One of the other frustrating things for me is the partnership model in the legal profession is very much broken, and the generation change with millennials and what they’re interested in – it’s going to lead to a significant shift in how law firms approach the business of law. I wish there were others out there really proactively trying to solve those business model issues. If they put their incredible legal and business minds to good use they would be able to help really develop a sector of social enterprises like this where professionals can get quite fairly rewarded for their efforts, but also the business can have massive social outcomes.