The New Economy of Law
I just returned from the Pro Bono Conference held in Ottawa last week organized by Pro Bono Ontario. I attended because our law firm provides a pro bono legal services without fanfare. We provide pro bono legal service because it is the right thing to do.
I attended the conference in order to try and see how we can do things better. How do we act responsibly in balancing the “business of law” – paying our staff and overhead – with the desire to continue providing pro bono legal services responsibly? And, are there ways to do things better on both fronts?
I met many fascinating lawyers in public and private practice who educated me on what they are doing and what they plan to do. I came away with many ideas which I will take back to the lawyers and staff in my office.
It may appear to some lawyers that doing pro bono work is something they can’t afford to do. After all, they have to pay their rent, their staff and certainly themselves. And, I have never heard a lawyer say they have enough staff resources. However, I was surprised to learn that there are financial benefits to lawyers providing “free” legal services.
But that should never be the reason for anyone providing free legal services to someone who can’t afford it. The lawyer must have the right ingredients of head and heart to do it responsibly and effectively – for you and the client.
It is like volunteering. You get into it out of curiosity, friendship or a desire to give back. But when you get into the actual heavy lifting, you connect with people in a way that expands your vision, your opportunities and your sense of purpose in life.
At some practical level, pro bono work has been proved to improve staff and lawyer moral, which helps retention and productivity. Interestingly, it is expected by U.S. Federal departments in their R.F.P. forms for law firms bidding on engagement opportunities. I suspect this will expand into Canada and more and more into private sector organizations. Many of the big law firms have implemented, from the sophisticated and substantial to the unsophisticated and informal acceptance of pro bono work as a component of their work load.
Smaller law firms and many sole practitioners do pro bono work as well. They do it because someone’s story touched them in some way or they believe in the cause. I am sure that many lawyers sometimes agonize over why they ever got themselves involved in a pro bono file, but they soldier on because they believe they are doing the right thing.
Pro bono work can, with public and private support, advance the delivery of legal service not only to those that can’t afford them but also in creating systems – whether technology or structure – which can be used in delivering legal services efficiently to paying clients.
Some lawyers will see the expansion of pro bono work as a threat. Some lawyers will tolerate and modify the way they do business only to the extent they have to. And, there will be some lawyers that will take up the challenge and lead in the new economy of law.
I believe that client development in the future (paying clients that is) will demand a strong public service profile with competencies that include specialized knowledge delivered efficiently. Leading in the area of pro bono work will re-define the legal profession and advance access to justice for those less fortunate. Love it or hate it, pro bono work is here to stay and, over time, will force lawyers in public and private practice to evolve to stay relevant. Welcome to the new economy.
Article written by Karmel Sakran