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Making pro bono transparent

Mary Dobson, former joint COO and head of fundraising and comms at Advocate, the Bar’s national pro bono charity, says those providing free legal advice should be more vocal about what they are doing

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all barristers do pro bono. Or is it? Despite the wide variety of interesting and deserving cases, the opportunity for practice development and the fact that, unlike when doing paid work, a barrister gets to choose which cases they take on, the number of barristers undertaking work through Advocate, or indeed through other channels, is lower than you might expect. It is also difficult to track.

Contrary to expectation, those doing pro bono work are often the kind of people who keep quiet about it. This leads to a situation in which Advocate is regularly asked by senior clerks and chambers’ CEOs to let them know how many cases have been taken on by members of their set, because they themselves are not aware of what’s happening, despite their best efforts. And they really do want to know – whether to make sure the entire chambers’ pro bono effort isn’t being unsustainably shouldered by one passionate individual, or just to check whether their second six pupils and junior tenants are making the most of the learning, networking, and marketing opportunities offered to them by pro bono work.

Whether it be part of a chambers social responsibility agenda, exploiting the business development benefits of pro bono, or working towards embedding a public service ethos in chambers, there is definitely a move towards greater transparency around which cases are being worked on free of charge, which brings me on to the two fascinating examples of structuring and reporting pro bono being undertaken by two sets of innovative chambers: Littleton and Radcliffe. Their experiences illustrate the same (very common) point – that communication is everything.

“The structure of the self-employed Bar does little to encourage team participation and yet pro bono work often benefits from a team approach”

Yes, we can make a difference

Liz Dux, chambers director, Littleton Chambers

The legal profession is a fortunate one in many ways. Our skills give us a unique ability to transform lives for the better or to help someone in their hour of need.

Take the following example: A silk from Littleton read a report in the legal press about a solicitor in Scotland who was facing serious disciplinary proceedings as a result of his reaction on social media to some vile anti-Semitic abuse he had received. Unprompted, the silk contacted the lawyer in question and offered to represent him pro bono in his disciplinary proceedings, as he was unable to afford paid representation. As a result of this silk’s intervention, the said solicitor’s career was saved and someone’s life was transformed for the better. The silk told no one about his involvement. I only found out about it via press coverage.

The above example is not an usual one at the Bar. I frequently find out about fantastic work barristers at Littleton have undertaken pro bono long after the event and normally by way of passing comment. So many barristers contribute huge amounts to society but do so under the radar, not wanting to shout out about it but recognising the positive impact they can have on society.

This is why we have introduced an initiative at Littleton whereby we encourage all our members to self-record what pro-bono or community initiatives they undertake via a points system. We hope that by doing so we are encouraging everyone to do their bit to help others less fortunate than themselves but also not to hide their good deeds under a bushel. The structure of the self-employed Bar does little to encourage team participation and yet pro bono work often benefits from a team approach, hence we felt that greater communication about what everyone was doing would facilitate a linking of efforts.

We are proud that our pro bono points collection initiative is just one of several which we have introduced over the last year or so to increase our contribution towards wider CSR initiatives. Another example is our INSPIRE sports initiative whereby we encourage athletes transitioning away from high performing sports, particularly those from less fortunate and well represented socio-economic backgrounds to develop a career in the law. This initiative includes opportunities for work experience, mentoring during academic studies, networking opportunities, interview support, and ongoing education.

Last year, on taking silk, one of our members who themselves comes from an under represented socio-economic background, visited an inner London community school to encourage them to enter the profession and follow his example. I was so moved by the responses he received in a thank you card. One read, ‘You have taught me to believe that I can make a difference in the world’. The answer to that is ‘yes we can’.

”Pro bono is not just a nice thing to do – it’s a business priority, which goes hand in hand with client collaboration, innovation, and service delivery”Fiona Fitzgerald, chief executive, Radcliffe Chambers

Creating a virtuous circle

Fiona Fitzgerald, chief executive, Radcliffe Chambers

Pro bono is important to us, our clients, and wider society. We know from the conversations that we’ve had with our clients, barristers, staff, and potential recruits that they all expect us to make a positive impact on society; it’s not just a nice thing to do – it’s a business priority, which goes hand in hand with client collaboration, innovation, and service delivery. We’ve grown a lot over the past five years and we are really proud of our progress, but we believe that its sustainability depends on us being a responsible chambers, not just in terms of our compliance and people policies, but also in terms of contributing to the society in which we operate. As a legal services organisation, we have a particular responsibility to help widen access to justice.

We are always looking for ways to do things better, across all aspects of chambers. Often this is by recognising what we are already doing and then thinking about how we could do it more efficiently or be more impactful, making the most of our growing skills and experience. Our pro bono journey is a case in point. Barristers at Radcliffe Chambers are already regularly involved in many amazing pro bono initiatives, so we had a good foundation for taking a more strategic approach to increase our positive impact.

It is a given that you can make a bigger impact when you work as a team, so the first thing we did was connect people who are working on similar initiatives via our Responsible Chambers Committee, a group of staff and barristers. Creating this wide-ranging forum for discussion helped us to really focus in on where we ought to concentrate our efforts and helped us explore different perspectives on how we might make an impact, whether it is by providing our legal expertise, our project management experience, our communications expertise, or our people skills. We all have a role to play and we can all bring something different to the table.

The committee has helped raise the profile of pro bono within chambers and led to plenty of productive conversations about what we can do better. Communication is creating a virtuous circle. We are now working to keep up that communication throughout chambers to increase engagement with and participation in pro bono, and to drive through the reporting changes that we are planning to make. Some of this has meant fairly basic changes, such as introducing a pro bono newsletter and creating a factsheet on how to get involved, but there is also a wider message to share about why we are doing this and how it fits in with our commercial objectives.

What isn’t measured, can’t be managed, so our next step was to put together a survey to capture a definitive picture of all our community and pro bono activities. We are now considering how best to track them all moving forward so that we measure our performance against specific objectives. We have seen the importance of a data driven approach when it comes to our inclusion and diversity activities. Our award-winning Student Barrister Experience Programme (a two day course for sixth formers from backgrounds that are underrepresented at the bar) came about because we looked at the diversity data for our pupillage applicants and recognised that we needed to take steps to attract a wider pool of candidates. The programme is now entering its third year and, while we still have a long way to go to becoming the diverse chambers that we aspire to be, we are pleased to have seen an improvement in our most recent recruitment round and hope to see even greater diversity in 2020, as a result of adopting Rare’s contextual recruitment system. We believe that applying the same, evidence based approach to our pro bono strategy will help us make a greater impact in the future.

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