Australia: Legal pro bono work: "Real work" that meets benchmarks

Last Updated: 30 January 2013
Article by David Hillard

Law firms that provide legal services to the Commonwealth are required to report their hours of pro bono work per lawyer in FY2012. The amount of pro bono work performed by Australia's largest law firms varies significantly, in data just released in the Commonwealth's Legal Services Expenditure Report 2011-2012. Now that pro bono performance is publicly available through the Commonwealth's Legal Services Expenditure Report, firms will inevitably be made accountable through questions from prospective clients and recruits about how they measure up against their peers and the wider profession's expectations.

The 24 largest Australian firms that reported to the Commonwealth fell into three distinct bands of pro bono performance.

Nine firms exceeded the National Pro Bono Resource Centre's Aspirational Pro Bono Target figure of at least 35 hours of pro bono work per lawyer a year. A further eight firms averaged between 15 and 34 pro bono hours per lawyer. Finally, seven of the largest firms in the country averaged fewer than 10 hours of pro bono work per lawyer last year.

The tables below demonstrate that significant pro bono performance is not merely the consequence of the size of the firm. It simply is not the case that the larger the firm, the greater the capacity to deliver pro bono work.

Four firms with more than 100 partners did not meet the pro bono target benchmark of 35 hours per lawyer a year, and three of those firms were in the lowest band. Conversely, one of the leading pro bono performers was from outside Australia's 10 largest firms.

The wide range in average hours reported to the Commonwealth does not reflect a different attitude to pro bono work by lawyers at each firm. Lawyers at Australia's commercial firms have consistently stated in national surveys they want to do pro bono work.

What does make the difference is the way that firms support this desire to perform pro bono work. Signing on to the pro bono target is a strong start. The target is in its sixth year, and there are 95 signatories to this voluntary benchmark, covering about 13 percent of the legal profession.

There are significant ways that firm management can ensure that pro bono is a fundamental part of the culture, and is performed at the highest levels. The leading pro bono firms have dedicated professionals managing their pro bono practice and seeking out pro bono opportunities. Pro bono work at these firms is no supplement to a lawyer's core activities, but rather is integrated into the firm's regular practice.

It is "real work", performed to commercial client standards by lawyers at every level, and is lawyers at every level, and is recognised as billable work for the purposes of performance assessment, promotion and bonuses.

There is a vast unmet legal need in Australia, and pro bono work is only one small part of the solution. However, as a profession, Australia's larger law firms can do more as a cohort to step up their pro bono contributions, and to at least meet the national benchmark.

Inevitably, it will be the Australian community, as well as the firms themselves, that benefit from our largest firms taking a greater and more consistent response to pro bono work for disadvantaged people and for the not-for-profit organisations that support disadvantaged people.

Pro bono work at law firms

Law firms exceeding National Pro Bono Target Pro bono hours per lawyer
Allens 49.1
Ashurst 43.3
Baker & McKenzie 40.2
Clayton Utz 43.5
Corrs Chambers Westgarth 41.8
DLA Piper 56.5
Gillbert + Tobin 51.3
Herbert Smith Freehills 36.5
King & Wood Mallesons 37.1

Law firms with 15 to 34 average pro bono hours Pro bono hours per lawyer
Allen & Overy 19.9
Henry Davis York 33.3
Herbert Greer 18
Holding Redlich 21.4
Lander & Rogers 22
Maddocks 27.6
Minter Ellison 22
Tress Cox 16.5

Law firms with less than 10 average pro bono hours Pro bono hours per lawyer
Gadens 2.6
Hunt & Hunt 4.7
HWL Ebsworth 8.4
Moray & Agnew 6.3
Norton Rose 8.2
Piper Alderman 3.5
Sparke Helmore 9.7

Source: Commonwealth Legal Servics Expenditure Report 2011-12

First published in The Australian, 25 February 2013

Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this bulletin. Persons listed may not be admitted in all states and territories.

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