Matheson breaks new ground with first dedicated pro bono partner

Niamh Counihan will lead pro bono strategy, devoting 50% of her time to programme
Photograph of Niamh Counihan with Matheson managing partner Michael Jackson standing outside Matheson's offices

Niamh Counihan with Matheson managing partner Michael Jackson

Matheson, Ireland’s largest law firm, has appointed Niamh Counihan as its first pro bono partner in what appears to be a first for the legal market.

Counihan will split her time evenly between leading Matheson’s pro bono legal activities and continuing in her role as the firm’s director of legal and regulatory affairs. 

In 2018, A&L Goodbody laid claim to having appointed Ireland's first full-time pro bono associate, Eithne Lynch, with Arthur Cox following suit in 2019 by naming Carolann Minnock in a similar role. However, Matheson is thought to be the first firm to have publicly committed a partner to devoting a significant amount of time to pro bono work, as opposed to being assigned with responsibility for pro bono work.

The move comes a few months after the Dublin firm established a dedicated pro bono committee. It also became a founding signatory to Pro Bono Pledge Ireland, an initiative which calls on legal professionals to commit to promoting access to justice by providing free legal assistance to those in need. Other signatories include regional rivals A&L Goodbody, Arthur Cox, and McCann Fitzgerald, as well as international players such as DLA Piper, Pinsent Masons, and Eversheds Sutherland, among others. 

In her new role, Counihan will work alongside Matheson’s management team to refine its pro bono strategy, lead its pro bono initiatives and collaborative projects that engage the firm’s lawyers and clients in supporting the communities they are a part of. 

Counihan has been with Matheson for more than two decades, and was appointed partner in 2011. She has been the firm’s director of legal and regulatory affairs within its risk management team since 2016. 

“Appointing a pro bono partner recognises that serving our community is a strategic priority for Matheson,” she said. 

“It also reflects our belief that our lawyers have a responsibility to use their professional expertise to provide access to justice to those who cannot afford it.  We will prioritise those projects which will deliver the most positive impact on our communities, and I look forward to seeing the meaningful benefits they will deliver to those who need them most.”

The firm said its partner-led pro bono practice is afforded the same resources as all of its other specialist practice areas, adding that it ‘is treated the same way as commercial work, with equal priority, quality of service and standard of professional conduct'. 

Michael Jackson, Matheson’s managing partner, said the firm looked forward to supporting Counihan and the pro bono practice’s efforts as it worked to put the firm’s values into action. 

“We believe that universal access to justice and to legal services is essential to the rule of law and that our lawyers have a responsibility to use their legal skills and knowledge to support the legal needs of those who are otherwise unable to access legal services,” he added. 

In March, Matheson became one of the first Irish firm to establish a dedicated sustainability-focused team by launching an environmental, social and governance (ESG) advisory group. The group, led by energy, natural resources, utilities and infrastructure practice head Garret Farrelly, consists of a cross-practice team of 12 partners and aims to address the increased regulatory focus on ESG across different areas, including climate action, data privacy, and employment practices, among others. 

Last year, a report revealed a number of 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. 

The research — conducted by DLA Piper, the Australian Pro Bono Centre, the Pro Bono Institute in Washington DC and the Thomson Reuters Foundation — revealed that 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.


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