From Pro Bono Law of BC

The future of pro bono in Canadian law firms

Will pro bono become part of our corporate culture? Canada's first national pro bono conference, held May 6 and 7 in Toronto, drew lawyers from across the country interested in formalizing a commitment to pro bono.

Law firms in Canada have a long history of delivering pro bono legal services, thanks to the efforts of individual lawyers who believe in the work. Why do lawyers take on pro bono cases? Not surprisingly,

the reasons vary. It can be inspired by a sense of professional duty, personal commitment to a cause or a sense of moral obligation. It may also reflect the lawyer's interest in expanding his or her horizons and skills, doing something different from the firm's day-to-day work or enhancing opportunities for advancement or recognition within the bar.

But if individual lawyers have consciously stepped up to the challenge of helping poor people in need, law firms are just now starting to look at a formal commitment to pro bono programs.

It is true that many firms have encouraged their lawyers to take on pro bono work, and some have even adopted written pro bono policies. But as recently pointed out by Paul Schabas, a partner at Blake, Cassels and Graydon LLP in Toronto, the problem with these policies is that they "say the right things" but are generally short on substance. As a result, the pro bono efforts of law firms have remained largely unstructured.

Most Canadian law firms have yet to build pro bono into their corporate culture, and have yet to derive the benefits of making pro bono part of their corporate identity. But that is changing.

Canada's national law firms are in the midst of that change. Managing partners of several national firms were among the 150 participants from across Canada who attended the first national conference, held May 6-7 in Toronto under the banner of "Building the Public Good: Lawyers, Citizens and Pro Bono in a Changing Society." Organized by Pro Bono Law of Ontario and hosted by the Law Foundation of Ontario, Legal Aid Ontario, the Law Society of Upper Canada and the Ontario Bar Association, the conference served as a think-tank for law firms and leaders in the legal profession and judiciary, including the Chief Justice of Canada, the Treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada and the national President of the Canadian Bar Association.

For several of the national firms, the future path is clear. They intend to take a more formal, organized approach to pro bono. Through new pro bono policies, they expect to address such pivotal issues as what office resources will be available for pro bono work and what credit they will give to lawyers who participate in a firm's pro bono program. In particular, the challenge is for law firms to give actual credit for pro bono work toward a lawyer's billable hour targets. Paul Schabas summed it up succinctly, "you must put your money where your mouth is."

The business case for pro bono was the focus of one session at the Toronto conference. Without a doubt, most firms want some empirical evidence so as to be persuaded of the value of a pro bono policy. Some lawyers even raised the perplexing matter of budgeting for pro bono - is it a cost or is it revenue? Among the best evidence for skeptics, proponents pointed to the list of the 100 most profitable law firms in the United States, published in American Lawyer. All these leading US firms have highly developed pro bono policies. According to conference speaker Esther Lardent, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, profitability has not suffered in these firms from the implementation of pro bono policies; in fact, in many cases, profitability has increased.

While adopting a pro bono policy will always involve some leap of faith, several of the national law firms are finding that a strong business case can be made. Some clients of law firms with international offices, for example, may expect to be advised of the firm's pro bono policy as a matter of corporate social responsibility.

From a law firm perspective, an attractive pro bono policy also serves as a recruitment tool and offers opportunities for professional development, team-building and a feeling of loyalty and pride. In the view of conference speaker Michael Barrack, a partner with McCarthy Tétrault, LLP, a pro bono policy improves the quality of life in a law firm and that leads to workplace satisfaction which, in turn, leads to retention of the firm's lawyers.

Canadian law firms are just now joining a pro bono movement that has already firmly taken root in the United States and Australia.

Future issues of the Benchers' Bulletin will feature news on pro bono policies in BC and the options a law firm can explore in developing its own policy. A firm might, for example, identify the types of cases or clients most suited to the firm's practice or might commit to an ongoing partnership with one or more community organizations in need of pro bono services. All speakers at the Toronto conference noted the need for a law firm to "start small" and to develop a highly successful project to maintain credibility.

Pro Bono Law of BC can offer ideas for partnerships between law firms and community groups in BC, and create opportunities for connection.

For more information, please contact Pat Pitsula, Executive Director, Pro Bono Law of BC at ppitsula@probononet.bc.ca or call at 604 893-8932, ext. 1.



Benchers help Pro Bono Law of BC

The Benchers have approved a $15,000 grant to Pro Bono Law of BC for 2004.

Pro Bono Law of BC is a non-profit society that strives to facilitate the provision of pro bono legal services and to raise the profile of lawyers who deliver pro bono services in BC.

A joint initiative of the Law Society of BC and the BC Branch of the Canadian Bar Association, Pro Bono Law of BC has been funded primarily by the Law Foundation of BC and the Law Society.

Pro Bono Law of BC plans outreach to the profession to explain the value of pro bono in law firms and to promote the pro bono opportunities that BC lawyers can pursue, from individual participation in clinical programs to pro bono partnerships between law firms and community organizations.

This past year, Pro Bono Law of BC has worked with the Law Society on the extension of insurance coverage to non-practising and retired members who wish to provide services through approved pro bono programs, and currently is one of several organizations working on a BC Supreme Court civil duty counsel project.