Lawyers Reach Pro Bono Target for First Time in Five Years
11 October 2016 at 11:23 am
Lawyers from large legal firms have reached a voluntary national target for providing pro bono legal services for the first time in five years and increased their work by more than 8 per cent on 2015, according to new research.
The ninth annual performance report on the National Pro Bono Aspirational Target shows that 11,185 Australian lawyers provided 402,216 hours of pro bono legal services in 2016 financial year – equating to 223 lawyers working pro bono full-time for one year.
“There has been growth across the board,” CEO of the Australian Pro Bono (legal) Centre John Corker said.
“2016 marks the first time since 2013 that, as a group, signatories to the aspirational target have met the target of at least 35 hours per lawyer per year, reporting an average of 36 pro bono hours per lawyer.
“This represents an 8.3 per cent increase on the pro bono hours reported in 2015 financial year.
“Of the 37 large firms (that is, firms with 50 or more full-time lawyers) that reported in both 2015 financial year and 2016 financial year, 26 reported an increase in pro bono hours per lawyer, and 17 reported growth of more than 20 per cent. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen this level of growth.”
Corker said that in a tightening legal services market, it was a tribute to the dedication of these law firms that they have maintained and grown their pro bono programs despite today’s competitive challenges.
“Within this cohort, the performance of firms with 201 to 449 full-time lawyers is especially strong, as demonstrated by seven out of 12 firms meeting or exceeding the target this year, up from only three out of 10 firms last year,” he said.
“Other factors in the overall growth of pro bono include more firms being strategic about their pro bono legal and community investment plans, new opportunities for firms to become involved through clearinghouses and pro bono referral schemes, and more work being done in areas of high unmet legal need such as migration, where there is little government assistance available.”
The report however found that the smaller legal firms were slower to reach the volunteer target.
“Of the 31 small law firms (fewer than 50 lawyers) that reported this year they performed an average of 16.3 pro bono hours per lawyer, with only 30 per cent meeting the target,” Corker said.
“The reported pro bono hours per lawyer decreased by 27 per cent from 2015 financial year. The number of small firms expecting to meet the target next year was 40 per cent, a decrease of 9.4 per cent on last year.
“Thirty-one small firms is only a small sample but the results this year may reflect the increasing pressure that small firms face to survive commercially. Small firms don’t have the same flexibility or capacity as large firms to maintain a pro bono practice, and so their results tend to be more volatile.”
He said performance across the 77 reporting firms was still quite uneven.
“There is clearly room for growth in pro bono legal work in a number of firms. These results will allow firms to benchmark themselves against their peers,” he said.
Corker said the report provided a snapshot of pro bono legal work in Australia.
“The report is based on data provided by law firms, solicitors and barristers who agree to use their best efforts to achieve a target of at least 35 hours of pro bono legal work per lawyer per year, and includes 18 of Australia’s 20 largest firms,” he said.
“With the target now in its tenth year, these results show that its influence as a driver of pro bono performance continues to grow. The fact that almost half of the target signatories either met or exceeded it in 2016 financial year demonstrates that the target remains well-positioned as a benchmark for the conduct of pro bono legal work across the entire Australian legal profession.
“It provides firms with a robust and achievable goal, encouraging them to support and develop their pro bono legal culture, practices and programs.”
The report can be downloaded here.