Pro bono is an obligation, not a duty, for government law firms


Duty has not motivated so many large Australian government law firms to engage in volunteer work. The only thing that will be is to make the achievement of the pro bono goal a forced contractual obligation, writes Jacqueline Burns.

The UK Labor Party has supported the creation of a state-run national pro bono center and is said to require law firms to meet a pro bono target if they want government contracts .

According to David Lammy, an English Labor politician, former justice minister and current shadow chancellor, the initiatives would “encourage partnership between the public and private sectors” and transform the legal system into a system that only serves the public. rich.

In the UK, lawyers allegedly only provide £ 7million in pro bono advice each year.

What’s exciting about the UK Labor Party’s plans is that the pro bono target (proposed of at least 35 hours per lawyer per year) would be binding on law firms working for the government.

In Australia, pro bono is not compulsory – rather it is seen as a moral duty.

An ambitious pro bono goal was introduced in Australia in 2007. And while it is notable that the current signatories collectively contributed 641,966 pro bono hours in fiscal 2021, what is more remarkable is how much and which companies are neglecting to do their part.

The Australian Pro Bono Center (APBC) 14th annual performance report of the national pro bono target recognizes that less than half (45%) of target signatories have met or exceeded the target.

Releasing the report, APBC Chairman Phillip Cornwell noted: “… it is a shame that a number of companies, including large companies, are well below target and missing out. considerable benefits that flow from volunteer work. Not the least of these advantages are compliance with pro bono requirements imposed by governments and the growing number of companies concerned with ESG as a condition of joining their legal panels. “

Although the APBC masks data submitted annually by signatories, governments do not.

The 2019-20 Legal Services Expenditure Report, produced annually by the Attorney General’s Legal Services Coordination Office, found that in that fiscal year the Commonwealth spent $ 335 million on legal fees. This excludes the fees paid to the Australian government attorney.

There are currently 62 legal service providers across the Australian government legal services panel.

Noting that up to 10% of expenses may be off-panel, it is reasonable to propose that these 62 legal service providers share $ 300 million in fees in 2019-2020.

Of these 62 providers, 38 did not reach the pro bono objective this fiscal year.

Among the 38 underachievers are three of the ten highest-billed law firms in the Commonwealth:

  1. Maddocks, which in 2019-2020 received 4.9% (estimate of $ 14.7 million);
  2. HWL Ebsworth, who won 3.5 percent (estimate $ 10.5 million); and
  3. Johnson Winter Slattery, which pocketed 2.2% (estimate of $ 6.6 million).

Table 1 – Top 10 Commonwealth Legal Billing Service Providers

The situation in New South Wales is much the same. The New South Wales Government Legal Services Panel Annual Report 2019-2020 shows that there are 40 companies on the NSW Government Legal Services Panel. In 2019-2020, these firms shared $ 142.5 million in legal fees.

Of the 40 companies, only 14 achieved the pro bono goal in 2019-2020.

Of the 26 companies that did not volunteer, eight companies rank among the NSW Government’s top bills. And again, Maddocks and HWL Ebsworth top the list.

  • Maddocks, being one of the top 10 billers on six sub-panels; and
  • HWL Ebsworth, being one of the top 10 billers on four sub-panels and one of the top 3 billers on a fifth sub-panel.

Hunt & Hunt, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, K&L Gates, Bartier Perry, Hicksons and Kingston Reid round out the eight. These companies all turn out to be the best bills on one or more of the NSW government sub-panels.

Table 2 – Top NSW Government Law Firms That Do Not Meet the Pro Bono Target

It is unfair to criticize a company on the basis of its performance in a single year. Long-term data is a better indicator of engagement.

The analysis of the data submitted since the 2013-14 financial year paints a fairly clear picture of the commitment and pro bono strategy of the companies mentioned.

It is evident that government law firms have structured pro bono programs in place, which occasionally manage to take on a pro bono case, try to redeem themselves and pretend their pro bono commitment.

The policy of the British Labor Party makes sense. Duty has not motivated so many large Australian government law firms to commit to volunteer work. The only thing that will be achieved is to make the achievement of the pro bono objective a forced contractual obligation.

It is high time all levels of government held their external legal service providers accountable.

Procedural fairness alone should require that panel companies be suspended or terminated for failing to meet their pro bono obligations, especially when the behavior is ongoing.

If a business is struggling to establish and manage their pro bono program, they should seek help, especially if they are taking advantage of government contracts. There are no excuses. For government law firms, in particular, the cost of doing business includes the cost of doing pro bono.

Jacqueline (Jaci) Burns) is the Marketing Director of Market Expertise.

Pro bono is an obligation, not a duty, for government law firms

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Last updated: October 22, 2021

Posted: 25 October 2021

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