At the 2017 Ceremonial Opening of the Legal Year on 9 January, I took the opportunity to reiterate the importance of generosity to a true legal professional to engage in pro bono and community service work. I urge support on three fronts – from law firms, from all other relevant institutions including the Government, the Judiciary, NGOs and charitable organisations, as well as from individual practitioners.
Many law firms have already been actively promoting a corporate culture that encourages their lawyers to do pro bono work. The initiatives vary with different firms and generally include the following:
- setting up a dedicated internal committee to focus efforts;
- developing a working relationship with public interest institutes to understand their needs;
- serving on boards of directors of community organisations;
- identifying suitable pro bono and community service opportunities;
- ensuring the quality of pro bono work is no less than any other paid work (ie, same level of professional support in terms of staff and supervision and same appraisal process);
- allocating designated funds (eg, a fixed proportion of the annual surplus, for advancing pro bono causes);
- allowing staff time off to participate in charitable activities;
- matching hours of voluntary work done for a charity by staff with donations by the firm.
Hopefully, an overview of some of these initiatives will help inspire those firms that are considering a move in this direction to develop an approach that suits their own set up.
At the regulatory level, it is interesting to note that a number of jurisdictions have implemented measures to raise awareness of or even to mandate pro bono contribution by members of the legal profession. In 2012, the New York State Court of Appeals adopted a new rule requiring applicants for admission to the New York State Bar to perform 50 hours of pro bono services. Other state bars including California, Montana, Connecticut and New Jersey are considering a similar pre-admission pro bono requirement.
In Singapore, the Legal Profession (Mandatory Reporting of Specified Pro Bono Services) Rules 2015 (“Reporting Rules”) came into effect in March 2015. The Reporting Rules serve to raise awareness of the role of lawyers in their contribution to pro bono work in society. Upon an application for a practising certificate, every Singapore advocate and solicitor is required to report the time spent on pro bono work in the preceding year. As it is only a reporting obligation, lawyers will not be subject to sanctions or adverse consequences for a report of zero pro bono hours.
We are not advocating any kind of mandatory obligations in relation to pro bono work, but it is worth noting that the pro bono culture is strengthening its shape in different parts of the world in various forms.
At the individual level, we do not yet have comprehensive statistics to compare the commitment of lawyers in Hong Kong to pro bono work with lawyers in other jurisdictions. We sent a questionnaire on pro bono work to all members, along with the application forms for the 2017 practising certificate. We have received a 17 percent response rate so far. Out of the responses received, the majority spent between 5 to 20 hours of pro bono work in 2016.
Mandatory reporting of pro bono work has been implemented in a number of states in the US. According to the published reports of some of these states, the average hours of pro bono work per attorney were impressive. For example, for the period 2009 to 2012, the average hours of pro bono work per attorney per year (including both active and inactive attorneys) ranged from 32 to 69 in Hawaii, 24 to 27 in Illinois, 31 to 34 in Maryland and 44 to 50 in Nevada. If we can achieve an average of 30 hours of pro bono work per solicitor every year (ie, 2 to 3 hours every month), based on about 9,000 practising certificate holders as of the end of 2016, we will already be able to offer 270,000 hours of pro bono work as a profession!
There are many avenues through which legal practitioners can give back to community. The Law Society has been organising different pro bono and community activities offering a wide range of choices for members to suit their interests and availability. Apart from the provision of free legal assistance to the public through the Law Society’s Free Legal Helpline and Free Legal Advice Consultation Service, members may also help enhance the legal knowledge of the public through other Law Society activities like giving school talks and seminars for NGOs, writing newspaper articles, facilitating group discussions of students in our annual Teen Talk event or giving community presentations on law related topics during the Law Society’s Law Week. Further, family activities like visits to the homes for the elderly and teaching English to underprivileged children are also available for members who wish to share the experience of serving the community with their families. These Law Society activities are organised throughout the year and publicised in our weekly Circulars. Your comments on how we can align these activities with your needs in relation to pro bono and community service work are most welcome.