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Helping to fill unmet legal needs

Robert Reed manages the pro bono and community investment program in the Brisbane office of MinterEllison. Photo, video: Geoff McLeod

National Pro Bono Day was recently held in Australia, to recognise and celebrate the commitment by the legal profession to undertake pro bono work for vulnerable people who need it the most.

Proctor sat down with Robert Reed, Special Counsel and Pro Bono And Community Investment Senior Manager at MinterEllison, to discuss the challenges around pro bono and advice he has for young lawyers who are interested in getting involved.

What is your role and how does it fit in with the broader legal profession?

My role is Special Counsel at MinterEllison and I’ve got the full-time role of managing the pro bono and community investment program in the Brisbane office as well as contributing to the national program. Essentially, what that means is we go out into the community, talk to community organisations, especially the ones that are dealing with our key cause areas around homelessness, domestic and family violence, First Nations and young people. We find out from them, how those issues are playing out in our community and what might be done to address that. We then take that knowledge back here, and we create, facilitate, coordinate, sometimes get directly involved in projects and programs that all of our people can get involved in to address those issues.

I was lucky enough to be part of pro bono at the very early stages, and probably in Queensland at the very start and I’ve seen how pro bono has really grown significantly, particularly Queensland, which is what I know. Firms more and more are taking this really seriously, they have co-ordinated approaches. Firm are working together, it’s really collegiate, there is no competition when it comes to pro bono. As a legal profession, we have an obligation to use our privilege, our knowledge to give back to the community, my role is part of that, along with many others out there.

What is the most rewarding part of pro bono work?

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The obvious one is just the satisfaction of being able to use the knowledge and expertise that you’ve had the privilege to gain in terms of providing legal solutions to problems, and apply that to the real world, and to individuals or organisations who really need that help but can’t afford it. So that direct ability to see all that hard work, you’ve done to become a lawyer payoff, in terms of actually helping someone on the ground is gold, it’s so rewarding. I’ve had clients who’ve said that we saved their lives, what we did was wave a debt of, you know, a few $100, which would seem nothing to us, but to them, it literally saves their lives, that’s just so rewarding.

What are the greatest challenges with your role?

The greatest challenges in the role of anyone doing pro bono work is to be on top of self-care. By the nature of the role, we’re hearing every day about the worst possible situations that can arise and the worst examples of humanity playing out and that can be overwhelming, particularly when you’re hearing those stories in the context of, you’re the person who’s supposed to arrange your solution for that and to fix it. So, I think to be a good pro bono lawyer, we need to be caring, and we need to be empathetic. But we also must be on guard against vicarious trauma so that we can keep doing our work.

In a commercial law firm, it’s not a community legal centre, it’s not a legal assistance organisation, there’s red tape components that come with that. They’re all legitimate considerations, conflicts and capacity and expertise, but it is sometimes a challenge to navigate all of that, to get the help where it’s needed. I’ve never actually found it a challenge to convince people in this firm or other firms to get involved, even though it’s a commercial firm, but some of those red tape considerations can be a challenge. Also, I think it’s the fact that there’s so much need out there compared to the resources, even a firm that has significant resources, it’s not endless resources and so a real challenge for me is how do we ensure that our pro bono work is getting where it’s really needed.

So, I think it all comes back to making sure that we focus on impact, not how many hours of pro bono we’re doing. I think it can be really challenging for somebody in pro bono work, they’ve generally got passion to help everyone, and you just can’t.

If you could go back and give yourself some advice on the first day of the job as a lawyer, what do you think it would be?

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The advice that I probably would have given myself is that as lawyers, no matter where we are, [we’re] all charged with finding solutions for people or organisations and that there is a place for directing some of that work, in commercial law firms, to making a difference. So, I would probably would have advised myself to just take it easy, think it through and think of ways that we could get involved in giving back to the community.

If there’s one message you give to a new lawyer starting out about the importance of pro bono work, what would it be?

We really need everyone to get involved to whatever extent they can in in pro bono work, it’s a professional obligation and I think it’s a personal obligation as well, that we use the privilege and skills that we have to contribute to access to justice solutions.

The legal assistance sector does a tremendous job there helping people who really need it, who can’t afford legal advice, but they can only do so much on the funding that they receive. By getting involved in pro bono, you are part of helping to fill that gap in unmet legal need, saving lives, changing systems.

So, I would say to a young lawyer, if you’re in a commercial law firm, seek out the pro bono opportunities. If they aren’t there, which is less likely nowadays, you’re bound to find something but if they aren’t there, talk to someone in your firm about setting it up.

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2 Responses

  1. Congratulations and thanks, Robert, for all that you do for the profession in the pro bono space. I am thinking it is over 20+ years now that you have championed the cause of those without financial means to access justice. As cliched as it may sound, you definitely “walk the talk”.

  2. Robert. Keep fighting the good fight, which is a forever task for all of the profession. All the best. DMM

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