Around the world, pro bono is catching on – new report

July 28, 2016

Nicholas Glicher, legal director of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was trained as an English solicitor and worked as a Mayer Brown attorney in London and Chicago. He winces at lawyer jokes and pop-culture portrayals of lawyers as villains. So for him, the results of the foundation’s third annual survey of law firm pro bono activities around the world was an antidote. Pro bono is thriving, from China – where lawyers reported working an average 37 hours a year on pro bono – to South Africa, where nearly half of the lawyers at reporting firms logged at least 10 hours of pro bono work in 2015.

“All over the world, if someone in need comes and says, ‘I need help,’ lawyers respond,” said Glicher. “It’s a feel-good story.”

The worldwide pro bono index is compiled by the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s TrustLaw global pro bono service, which helps connect nonprofits and law firms. (My employer, Reuters, is part of the foundation’s parent company but I have no involvement with the foundation or with TrustLaw.) This year, more than 130 law firms responded to TrustLaw’s invitation to submit reports, comprising 64,500 lawyers in 75 countries. All told, in the past 12 months, respondents donated more than 2.5 million hours of pro bono time to nonprofits, social enterprises and needy individuals, averaging 39.2 hours per lawyer. Small firm lawyers actually worked more than their fair share, average nearly 42 pro bono hours per lawyer. (The entire 99-page survey, which presents and analyzes the numbers by firm, country and geographic region, is available at www.trust.org.)

What the raw numbers don’t show, Glicher said, is the increased focus around the world on institutionalizing pro bono, not just providing help on an ad hoc basis. In the U.S., law firms already track their pro bono hours and often organize their efforts through a pro bono coordinator or committee. Such infrastructure, Glicher said, permits law firms to leverage their lawyers’ pro bono time effectively.

Traditionally, law firms in most other parts of the world have had more informal pro bono policies, according to Glicher. (Aside from the U.S., the other leaders of the global pro bono market are Australia and the U.K.) But in the three years TrustLaw has compiled its index, Glicher said, he has noticed more firms adopting formal pro bono policies and tracking their hours. “This shift in mindset is really important,” he said.

The data from firms performing pro bono in China provides a good example. Last year, 18 firms submitted responses to the TrustLaw survey. This year, the number was 26, most of them international firms with offices in China. Average pro bono hours per lawyer increased from 19 hours to 37 hours, and the percentage of lawyers performing 10 or more hours of pro bono rose from 25 percent in the 2015 Index to 34 percent this year.

The problem jurisdictions, Glicher said, remain countries with unstable legal systems and few lawyers per capita, such as South Sudan and the Central African Republic. International firms, which typically act as pro bono role models for local shops, don’t set up offices in these regions. Oddly, Glicher said, pro bono numbers also tend to be low in Scandinavia – but for the opposite reason. The social safety net in Northern Europe is so strong that there’s less demand for pro bono services.

The goal of the index, according to Glicher, is twofold: to help law firms understand how best to allocate their pro bono hours; and to bring more transparency to pro bono work. The survey has already accomplished the latter. When it began in 2014, only 103 firms with a total of 36,000 lawyers reported their pro bono efforts to TrustLaw. This year’s 130 responding firms included nearly twice as many lawyers.

And then there’s that impressive number for total hours – a figure you’d be hard-pressed to find in the 2014 report. “Two-and-a-half million hours of pro bono!” Glicher said. “Really, I feel quite proud of the legal sector.”

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