Before establishing a pro bono programme, consider the following:
- What support and interest for pro bono exists within the legal department and the wider organisation?
- What skills exist in the legal team, and can those skills be matched to an identified legal need?
- What skills does the legal team wish to develop?
- What are the resources your organisation is willing to invest?
- Are there existing law firm relationships which you can leverage?
- What other relationships can you leverage?
Surveying support and interest
When developing a pro bono programme, there are many considerations to take into account – looking both at the support you will get from above as well as the interest you will get from your legal team. The following checklist provides a guide to how you can successfully survey internal support and interest to help you choose how to approach your pro bono offering.
What type of institutional support do I have?
Speak with members of your legal team to ensure you will have buy-in for and enthusiasm to participate in pro bono projects. It may be better to start small to ensure initial projects are successful. Pro bono should always be a voluntary choice on the part of the individual in-house legal teams, in the same way as giving money to charity.
Speak with those responsible for wider CSR programmes. They may be helpful in getting projects off the ground, publicising your efforts or introducing you to charity partners.
Find one or more ‘pro bono champions’ who will be able to encourage your team members to participate in pro bono projects.
Find a senior member of the legal department who would be prepared to sponsor the programme, and advocate for it internally.
What type of pro bono project should I select?
Survey your team to ensure pro bono matters align with social issues important to your colleagues. Sample questions to ask are:
- Have you ever been involved in pro bono work? If the answer is yes, please provide the name of the organisation/individual you advised, and a brief description of the work involved. What did you like about this work or what do you wish could have been done differently?
- Which social issues or beneficiary groups would you like to focus your pro bono efforts on? For example: homelessness, health, environment, education, elderly people, etc. Please state as many as you wish.
- Would you like to focus on local community pro bono work?
- What types of pro bono activities are you interested in? Please tick as many that apply: i) advice clinics; ii) advice to charities/NGOs; (iii) other (please elaborate). In doing so, identify programmes that may not be suitable, for example, if your organisation is not located near any local advice bureaus it may be difficult for individuals to reach a venue.
- Do you have any contacts who might be relevant or helpful for our pro bono programme, for example, are you a trustee of a charity, do you have contacts from recent volunteering work?
- Please let us know what you would hope our pro bono programme would accomplish over the next year.
Find out what pro bono or volunteering work is already being done by members of your team or by your institution. One way of galvanising organisation-wide support of a pro bono programme is to link the pro bono work with a broader CSR initiative or social goals being pursued by your organisation.
If members of your team have relevant contacts, these networks might be useful in developing sources of pro bono work.
When developing a pro bono programme, it’s important to understand the skills and preferences of your team members and how they could be used.
The generic skills of a typical lawyer – legal research and writing, fact-gathering, the ability to marshal persuasive arguments, advocacy and negotiation skills, combined with their particular specialist skills – can be used to help people experiencing disadvantage, or the community organisations that support them.
Non-lawyers can also make valuable contributions to an effective pro bono programme. For example, administrative staff are essential to the smooth coordination of projects and communications teams can help publicise pro bono work both internally and externally. There is a role for everyone.
Do not worry about not being an expert in the field. In-house legal teams are frequently asked to undertake legal work involving areas that they are not familiar with. They are able to do this because they know the framework of a particular area, where to look for detail and where to obtain support, including conceptual and strategic advice. Depending on the circumstances of the pro bono work, a competent in-house legal team with adequate time and access to appropriate support may easily provide useful assistance.
While in-house legal teams can (with appropriate training and supervision) advise on areas of law outside their usual expertise, many prefer to provide pro bono advice in their core areas of expertise.
It is worth considering your potential volunteers’ preferences for delivering pro bono advice. This can range from face-to-face advice with individuals in a clinic setting, to corporate law advice given remotely to an international NGO. In developing a pro bono programme, the team could work from its existing skills base to identify ways of using these skills to address important community needs.
In-house lawyers have skills which can make the same contribution to small charities as to large corporates. Many pro bono matters allow volunteers to apply the skills they use for their employer to the pro bono context. There is a clear match between the skills of lawyers working in corporate organisations and the needs of not-for-profit organisations, which may include fact gathering, advice, drafting, negotiation or representation needs in areas such as tax, contracts, incorporation and governance, employment, intellectual property and government tendering.
Pro bono can be a great way to upskill and gain experience in areas of law relevant to career progression. Consider the sub-specialisms in your team, and areas that you or others might be looking to develop, when deciding the legal areas in which you wish to volunteer. Depending on the interest of your team and the resources available, there might be additional training that could be undertaken to support a broader range of pro bono projects.
Pro bono work is also ideal for more junior lawyers who may not have experience of directly advising clients, and can do so, while working under the supervision of more senior members of the in-house legal team.
Many in-house pro bono programmes operate on minimal to no budget and rely on existing internal and external resources. Your organisation may consider partnering with organisations such as LawWorks which requires a minimal fee to access its resources. Costs may be reduced by collaborating with law firms or other in-house legal teams. As you progress with your pro bono programme, you may consider how to incorporate the programme within your team or organisation’s budget.
Pro bono work may require a small financial investment in addition to time and expertise. The expenses can include membership fees, travel costs and disbursements such as travel, copying costs, filing fees, etc. The costs will depend on the nature of the project or the matters that you undertake.
Even though costs are likely to be minimal, it’s important to understand the extent to which your organisation can provide funding to facilitate pro bono work. This may impact the types of pro bono projects that you’re able to take on.
Working with law firms
Many large law firms have their own dedicated pro bono management resource responsible for developing their firm’s pro bono practice and infrastructure. In the spirit of adding value to what they are able to offer, these law firms are often happy to consider collaboration with their clients’ in-house teams.
This has several advantages. Firms can often help source opportunities, training, insurance and communications. They might also have a different footprint/geographic reach which can lead to exciting opportunities. They will also be able to help fill skills and capacity gaps.
In-house legal teams can also bring a different perspective to private practice solicitors. Working within the client they are more aware of the day-to-day challenges faced by businesses and the wider business context of legal issues faced.
Some questions a firm might ask you when you first approach them about collaboration include:
- What is your main objective?
- Do you have a theme you want to focus on?
- Do you want to link your pro bono work to your industry?
- Do you have targets/incentives for your team?
- What are the constraints?
- Do you prefer desk-based work or meeting clients?
- How far out of your legal comfort zone are you willing to go?
- Do you want a bespoke project or to join something well established?
Do not worry if the answer is “I’m not sure” – one of the things they might help you with is working out how to answer these questions.
If an in-house team is relying on the partner law firm for PII for pro bono work then the responsibility for the legal work sits with the law firm. Clear communication is needed at the start about how the project shall be run to ensure that this does not cause difficulties.
Many organisations look at the pro bono activities of law firms when deciding who to work with. This is also an opportunity to change behaviour by letting your interest and preference for active pro bono solicitors be known during or after pitches.
Identify external support
When you’re establishing a pro bono programme, draw on the guidance, inspiration and potential collaboration of those who have done it before. Get to know the pro bono sector – it’s often a great networking opportunity to meet people who can provide guidance and inspiration.
Join the UK In-House Pro Bono Group. This is a group of people like you who run, or one day hope to run, pro bono programmes in their organisations. The working group provides opportunities to network, learn, share knowledge and cooperate on pro bono programmes. See the section on Wider sector collaboration for more information on how to join the group.
Speak to LawWorks about its programmes. It is an easy way to source one-off pro bono projects for in-house teams. The Not-for-Profits Programme circulates fortnightly casework opportunities, which can be forwarded to interested members of the legal team.
As a first step it’s a good idea to reach out to:
- in-house legal teams who have established pro bono programmes
- LawWorks, and/or other pro bono charities listed in chapter 26 of the Law Society’s Pro Bono Manual