The University of Queensland’s Pro Bono Centre recently marked its 10th anniversary. Attending an event to mark the occasion reminded me of the important role of service in the legal profession. Pro bono work has played a pivotal role in shaping my career as a lawyer and a leader — bringing much professional and personal enjoyment along the way.
In this article I will speak briefly about the history of pro bono, as well as the ways it has shaped my experience and career. Additionally, I will share some tips and resources for practitioners who are interested in becoming more involved in pro bono work.
What is pro bono?
The term pro bono derives from the Latin term ‘pro bono public’ which means for the public good’. It refers to professional services provided for free or at reduced fee. The Law Council of Australia defines pro bono work as:
A lawyer, for a reduced fee, without a fee, or without expectation of a fee, advises and/or represents a client in cases where:
- a client has no other access to the courts and the legal system; and/or
- the client’s case raises a wider issue of public interest; or
- the lawyer is involved in free community legal education and/or law reform; or
- the lawyer is involved in the giving of free legal advice and/or representation to charitable and community organisations.
History of pro bono in Queensland
The legal profession has a long history of helping people who are unable to afford legal services. This reflects the profession’s commitment to the principle of equal access to justice irrespective of a persons financial resources. The growth of structured pro bono services, as offered by lawyers and firms, has been a more recent development in line with this tradition.
Before the 1970s, most legal work for disadvantaged people was completed by lawyers through low-level law society based schemes or on an ad hoc basis. State and Commonwealth Government have since progressed a more coordinated approach by funding legal aid schemes and an Australian network of community legal centres (CLCs).
From the early 1990s, Federal Government increasingly reserved legal aid funding for criminal and family law, which now makes up the bulk of legal aid commission budgets. From the 1990s, the harnessing of pro bono resources gradually increased as the private legal profession observed the growing demand for civil law assistance and recognised it could help fill a small gap in civil law. This gap has continued to grow as access to justice remains a difficult topic for governments and the legal profession to tackle.
Many law firms and barristers have risen to meet the challenge of access to justice by establishing their own pro bono programs across many different practice areas.
Structured referral schemes have evolved to target the most vulnerable people who rarely obtained civil law assistance in the past, such as the homeless, people with mental illness, and self-represented litigants.
Why I do pro bono work and encourage others to do the same
I cannot understate the benefits that working pro bono has afforded me. I’ve built friendships and professional connections around the world which I would not otherwise have done if I hadn’t taken these opportunities.
My first experience working on pro bono legal matters was during my final years of law school when I volunteered at LawRight (formerly known as QPILCH). This led to ad hoc opportunities for paid work with LawRight in their Court Self-Representation Service which helped me build practical experience after university. I graduated in the wake of the GFC, which meant there was a shortage of graduate legal positions, particularly in Brisbane. Despite this, when interviewing with prospective employers, senior practitioners uniformly commented positively on the pro bono experience I had gained early in my career. This experience also provided opportunities to allow me to work as a judge’s associate, overseas for a UN tribunal, and then in the South Pacific.
These experiences developed my skills and knowledge areas by exposing me to different types of clients, areas of law, and colleagues. This in turn has benefitted my billable practice and made me a more effective lawyer. The opportunity to gain practical experience during law school, and in the earlier years of my career, helped me explore different areas of interest and fast track my career.
Because I’ve been exposed to a wide range of matters, I am able to draw links between different areas of law and provide practical, holistic and considered advice.
Most importantly, my work on pro bono matters is a satisfying way to give back to the community and contribute to causes I care about. It also gives me opportunity to take a break from the monotony of the day-to-day commercial work I am usually briefed in.
I have found that my pro bono experiences have enhanced the quality of my regular work, and given me immense satisfaction in my day-to-day practice.
Tips for lawyers doing pro bono work
Below are some tips I’ve picked up that anyone considering doing pro bono work should consider.
- Pick a cause, organisation, or work that you feel passionate about, or at least have some affinity towards. Everyone is busy, and it can be difficult to make time for pro bono work. Being passionate about the work you do will help you to manage the balance between your billable and pro bono work, and keep you energised when things.
- Pro bono doesn’t just have to be legal work. The skills lawyers can offer extend well beyond simply providing legal advice and assistance. There are many organisations who are keen and eager for assistance with things such as preparing or proofing policy papers, grant writing, and fundraising.
- Treat your pro bono matters the same as your billable work. Pro bono work should not be performed to a lesser standard just because the client is not paying standard rates.
- Don’t be scared to try something different. It may be difficult to find pro bono work in your particular practice area, but this shouldn’t prevent you from taking on a pro bono matter. There are resources out there that can help. Your pro bono work is also a chance for you to expand or develop your practice areas, or try something you’ve always been interested in.
- At the same time, make sure you have the appropriate time, resources, and competency to assist. Under the professional rules for both branches of the profession, lawyers have an ethical and professional duty to ensure that they are acting in their client’s best interest. Lawyers must provide their services competently, diligently, and as promptly as reasonably possible.
- Reach out for help. Why reinvent the wheel again, if the answer is only a short phone call or email away? We are part of a collegiate profession where there’s always someone willing to help — time permitting. If someone doesn’t know the answer, they’ll at least point you in the right direction. It’s also a great opportunity to connect and forge relationships with experienced practitioners, which in turn will build your profile and practice.
- Understand that not everyone will be thankful. Like your billable work, you won’t be successful every time you assist someone pro bono. Even in cases where you are successful, clients may not shower you in praise or even acknowledge your generous assistance. In these times, I find it helpful to remind myself that some pro bono clients may have past negative experiences when dealing with lawyers. They may have also been through a traumatic period of their life, and are having difficulty coping with these changes. Some also experience mental illnesses. I find solace in remembering that the pro bono assistance I provide has an impact on both the individual client and the community as a whole. This assists in the administration of justice and the flow-on-effects to my friends, family, colleagues, and the community.
- Pay attention to yourself and your colleagues. It is easy to overlook or forget that the work we do as lawyers can have a significant impact on our mental and physical wellbeing, because much of our work involves assisting people through times of crises. Therefore, the impact of working on stressful and traumatising cases need to be carefully monitored.
The symptoms such as compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and burnout are different for every person. Being aware of triggers and limitations is therefore very important. Reach out your friends, loved ones, and mentors for support. If your organisation doesn’t have a formal mentoring or assistance program, QLS and the Bar Association have a range of tools to assist you.
QLS’ LawCare offers free confidential, personal, professional support and counselling services to members, their staff, and their immediate family members. These can be accessed face-to-face, online, or by telephone. More information and access to LawCare is available at www.qls.com.au/For_the_profession/Resilience_and_wellbeing
Resources to support pro bono legal work
There is a wealth of resources for lawyers and students interested in learning more about pro bono work, incorporating pro bono work into their own practice, and getting involved in matters both locally and globally.
- The QLS Pro Bono Scheme (the Scheme) managed by LawRight (formerly QPILCH). is a structured referral service which provides a central point of contact for pro bono referrals in civil matters where legal assistance is needed and where the applicant cannot afford private legal services or obtain Legal Aid. The Scheme focuses on people experiencing hardship to maximise use of pro bono resources. It covers all areas of civil law (matters involving family and criminal law are not referred).
Participating law firms do not have to pay a participant fee, and are not compelled to accept pro bono work — it is solely within their discretion whether to take up a matter. More information is available at: www.qls.com.au/Knowledge_centre/Access_to_justice/QLS_Pro_Bono_Scheme
- The Australian Pro Bono Centre (formerly the National Pro Bono Resource Centre) has developed free, tailored resources to help lawyers build a pro bono practice, which go well beyond the scope of this article. I highly recommend their ‘Client Management and Self Care: A Guide for Pro Bono Lawyers’ resource for dealing with difficult clients, clients from diverse backgrounds, and for managing the impact of pro bono on your own mental wellbeing: www.probonocentre.org.au/provide-pro-bono
- Because of cuts to legal aid funding and scarcity of legal resources, your local community legal centre such as LawRight, Caxton Legal Centre, Women’s Legal Service, and the Refugee and Immigration Legal Service are great ways to use your skills to directly help people in your community. The opportunity to volunteer range from regular and flexible coordinated evening advice sessions, providing legal research, drafting or reviewing correspondence, providing discrete ad hoc assistance, specialist assistance in a range of areas of law, and conducting matters on behalf of a client up to and including litigation.
Community Legal Centre’s Queensland (CLCQ) is the peak body representing CLCs in Queensland and can assist practitioners to locate and connect with a CLC closest to them: www.communitylegalqld.org.au/find-legal-help
- Pro Bono Australia maintain a database of opportunities for lawyers (both paid and volunteer) interested in working in board positions, legal and compliance roles, and continuing education: www.probonoaustralia.com.au
- The Pro Bono Centre at the University of Queensland’s TC Beirne School of Law sources later year law students eager to work on pro bono cases. Drawn from a roster of over 500 students, these volunteers are able to provide assistance with casework, research, drafting or updating community legal education or fact sheet materials, and assistance in court: www.law.uq.edu.au/pro-bono/request-pro-bono-assistance
Some of the best advice, experience, and precedents I have received and continue to use in my billable practice have been through the pro bono matters I’ve worked on. Pro bono work has given me the opportunity to be a part of making the law, shaping history, and helping those I care about.
I have been fortunate to have these experiences and hope you’ll also embrace the opportunities to do pro bono work, as they will inevitably make you a more skilled and well-rounded practitioner.
Reimen Hii is a Barrister with Queensland Bar.
This article was originally published in October 2019.