Five Reasons Your Firm Should Encourage Pro Bono Work

This is the first in a series of articles to be published on a regular basis in Hong Kong Lawyer about “Pro Bono in Hong Kong”. The articles will be written by members of the Law Society’s Pro Bono Committee (“the Committee”). The Committee’s intentions for these articles are to promote pro bono practices in Hong Kong, to inspire lawyers (junior to senior, and everyone in between) to include pro bono in their law practices, and to assist and provide a resource for how to conduct your pro bono practice.

This first article covers the topic “Five reasons your firm should encourage pro bono work”. Given the limitations on length of our articles, there is only so much detail we can provide. However, the members of the Committee are always available to provide further guidance and information. We want the Committee to be viewed as a resource, so as to encourage more pro bono work in Hong Kong.

Five reasons your firm should encourage pro bono work (...and some reasons you don’t want your lawyers doing pro bono outside your firm)

There are many reasons why your law firm should encourage its lawyers to do pro bono work, and we’ll set out five here. 

  • Pro bono is important for society - Pro bono legal services are an important safeguard for those who cannot afford legal representation (for example, underprivileged or marginalised groups in society), or those looking to do public good (like churches, NGOs and other non-profits) who can achieve higher goals and aspirations by funneling their hard-earned donations and grants to serving their interests (rather than having to pay legal fees out of their scarce and limited budgets).
  • Self-satisfaction - Those who have been involved in pro bono work (or other volunteer work) know this first-hand - rewards come from giving, particularly when we, as lawyers, have a unique skill because of our education and training. Winning a court trial, completing an IPO, closing a deal - these are all rewarding experiences. But helping those who may not be able to help themselves brings the reward to a different level.
  • Recognition - Whether you are seeking recognition, or recognition simply falls upon you, you and your firm can gain recognition for your pro bono efforts. In addition to having clients who are more grateful than you could imagine, there are also programmes and schemes in Hong Kong that recognise your efforts. These include the Law Society’s own “Pro Bono and Community Work Recognition Programme” as well as the Chief Secretary for Administration Office’s Recognition Scheme for Provision of Pro Bono Legal Services.
  • Recruiting and retention - It is an unmistakable fact that over the last 10-15 years, law students (whether from Hong Kong’s own law schools or from overseas law schools) have been expressing an increasing interest in pro bono. Pro bono programmes have become an important recruiting tool for many law firms as a way of attracting law school graduates, and providing fulfilling pro bono and community work is a way to keep your lawyers (particularly the more junior lawyers) happy and satisfied with what they do. Pro bono work can be an important and fulfilling alternative to the “daily grind”, offering diversity to the work they may be doing day in and day out.
  • Your lawyers will become better at what they do! - Lawyers who learn different skill-sets become better lawyers. Different types of matters give the lawyer new perspectives and an ability to analyse factual and legal issues from a different perspective. Are all skills that are learned doing pro bono work instantly transferable to fee-paying work? Perhaps not, but solving problems and achieving objectives will always benefit a lawyer’s training and enhance his/her practice skills. In addition, pro bono work gives your lawyers additional client-facing opportunities (particularly at a junior level) that they may not get in their daily practice. Engaging in pro bono work also gives important mentoring opportunities for senior and mid-level lawyers vis-a-vis their junior lawyers.

Here are some reasons why you would want your lawyers to do pro bono work through the firm (and not simply “on their own time”)

There is a potential minefield of issues if a lawyer decides to do pro bono work “on his/her own time” and outside the auspices of your firm. These include:

  • “Going rogue” coupled with a lack of indemnity insurance - You never want your lawyers “going rogue”. If one of your lawyers is practicing outside of his or her area of knowledge and experience, the lawyer should be supervised (or at least be able to consult with a colleague) to make sure the approach is correct and the legal advice is sound. You don’t want your lawyers taking on work outside their capabilities (or their capacity). By including their pro bono work as part of their “firm work”, senior lawyers can monitor and protect against lawyers “going rogue”. Also, if one of your lawyers engages in the practice of law outside the auspices of your firm, your firm’s indemnity insurance would likely not cover malpractice. It is difficult (almost impossible) for lawyers to obtain insurance for pro bono work on an ad hoc basis. This means that the pro bono clients would not have the benefit of this important societal protection, and also that the lawyer is engaging in a practice not allowed under the relevant rules (practicing without indemnity insurance in place). 
  • Potential reputational issues - It might be hard for some pro bono clients to differentiate between when a lawyer is providing advice on his or her own individual basis vs the lawyer doing so as part of, or on behalf of, the firm. Even if the lawyer gives a disclaimer - “I’m doing this on my own; not through the firm” - this could be confusing to the pro bono client if the lawyer hands out a firm business card, or uses the firm’s email, or meets with the client in the firm’s offices. If there is a problem with the advice given to the pro bono client, this could become a “firm problem”, not just a problem for the individual lawyer.
  • Potential conflict and engagement issues - Tied into potential reputational issues are problems with conflict and engagement protocols. Firms have conflict checking procedures for a reason. It could be very embarrassing for a firm to have one of its lawyers representing an individual or organisation outside the firm on a pro bono basis, only to learn down the road that the recipient of the pro bono advice is adverse to a firm client. By utilising the proper intake, engagement and conflicts checking procedures of the firm, this type of situation can be avoided.

The answer to the potential “minefield of issues” is not simply to shut down your firm’s pro bono practice, or to prohibit or discourage pro bono work. The answer is to have the work done through the auspices of your firm, using your firm’s intake procedures, letting lawyers have the benefit of oversight and consultation with senior lawyers, and all the while trying to enhance our society.

Our next article will be on “How your firm can start a pro bono programme”. 

Jurisdictions: 

Chairman of Pro Bono Committee