Global firms from DLA Piper to Dentons see big jump in pro bono partners, report finds

Cuts to legal aid partly behind increase in number of dedicated pro bono lawyers
More than 55 law firms employ pro bono partners

The Australian bush fires have witnessed a concerted drive by the legal professional to help victims through co-ordinated pro bono programmes Shutterstock

Some of the world’s largest law firms including DLA Piper, Baker McKenzie, Dentons and Hogan Lovells have increased their number of dedicated pro bono partners by more than ten times over the past two decades, according to a new report.

More than 55 law firms globally employed 66 dedicated pro bono partners in 2019, compared with just six in 1999, in part because cuts to legal aid have crimped access to justice, prompting some charitable-minded firms to step in and fill the gap, according to the study co-authored by DLA Piper, the Australian Pro Bono Centre, the Pro Bono Institute in Washington DC and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The vast majority of large law firms run pro bono programmes that are typically co-ordinated by partners although some employ professionals below partner-level to run their programmes.

The report, The Nature and Prevalence of Pro Bono Partner Roles Globally, defined a 'dedicated' pro bono partner as someone who spends 50% or more of their time on pro bono work: 85% of the pro bono partners surveyed undertake billable work that makes up less than 10% of their total practice.

The study found that most pro bono partners (61%) are salaried or fixed share partners with only 16% being equity partners.

Around two-thirds of firms that have a dedicated pro bono partner do so to demonstrate their commitment to access to justice and to reflect their firm’s values while risk management was a key driver for 40% of the respondents 

“The title of Partner has provided me with credibility and the ability to convince some of the most reluctant attorneys at the firm (i.e., the other partners) to take pro bono seriously," said one respondent.

"Perhaps even more than that, I think that elevating me to pro bono partner has improved the firm's status in pro bono.”

Pro bono partners provide legal help on a wide range of issues, including support for vulnerable or low-income individuals on matters related to housing and immigration, and advice to UN agencies and governments in developing countries.

Recent examples of pro bono work that have hit national newspaper headlines include aid provided to victims of the Australian bush fires and a historic court ruling in The Netherlands that made the government accountable for failing to meet climate change targets.

Nicolas Patrick, pro bono partner at DLA Piper, said: “The nature of pro bono work has evolved enormously over the last decade. Pro bono practices are much larger and often operate across multiple jurisdictions. The work is increasingly complex, frequently connected to humanitarian emergencies and almost always requires strategic engagement with a range of stakeholders. The growth in pro bono partner roles directly reflects these trends.”

The research found that the US has the largest number of pro bono partners, with more than 30. The UK currently has 10 dedicated pro bono partners; of those three are from global firms Ashurst, Dentons and DLA Piper, and seven are from US firms including Cooley, Dechert and Duane Morris. No UK magic circle or national firm currently have a dedicated pro bono partner.

Webber Wentzel was the first firm in South Africa to appoint a pro bono partner in 2003 and now has three dedicated partners.

Australian firms have appointed 11 dedicated pro bono partners over the past decade.  

Danny Gilbert, managing partner at Australian firm Gilbert + Tobin—which has two dedicated pro bono partners—said: “We didn't produce a business case. We understood that appointing a pro bono partner was the right thing to do.”

There are at least six law firms that currently have more than one pro bono partner, according to the report.

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