In-house pro bono: challenges and opportunities

Rebecca Wilkinson, LawWorks Deputy CEO and Director of Programmes, reports on our recent event on in-house pro bono.

On Tuesday, 19 March 2019, I had the pleasure to Chair a LawWorks event, kindly hosted by Debevoise & Plimpton, for in-house lawyers titled “In-House Pro Bono: Challenges and Opportunities”. The event was the official launch of LawWorks’ new in house regulatory guidance and included a panel discussion on in-house pro bono.

The event was attended by in-house lawyers from: Bloomburg, Capita, Citi, Dentsu Aegis Network, ebay, Goldman Sachs, GSK, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Microsoft, NBC, Paysafe, PWC, Sky, and Visa. On the panel were:

  • Deborah Smith, Executive Director at Goldman & Sachs. She serves as co-chair of the firm’s Pro Bono Committee.
  • Emma Rehal-Wilde, Pro Bono Manager at Debevoise & Plimpton and LawWorks trustee.
  • Juan Pena, Lead Corporate Counsel at Visa. Chair of Visa’s Europe Pro Bono Committee.
  • Richard Pitkethly, Head of Learning at LawWorks.

The event began with a presentation about LawWorks’ new in-house pro bono guidance. Richard Pitkethly, Head of Learning and Practice at LawWorks, outlined that the guidance had come about due to feedback from LawWorks member in-house teams. Members had stressed that in their day-to-day jobs, whether working in-house or in private practice, they didn’t have to think about how their work interacted with the regulations (LSA and SRA). It was only when stepping outside the day job that they became more conscious of the role and impact of regulation.

The LawWorks guidance was produced to answer members’ questions about how pro bono can be carried out, in a variety of ways and settings, in line with the rules and regulations. It addresses common misperceptions around reserved activity, and looks at SRA rules 4.10 and 4.16 in the context of the Legal Services Act, with reference to pro bono and in-house practice. With the SRA introducing a new Handbook in November, regulation will continue to evolve. The guidance and slides can be downloaded below.

(Please note, we have since updated our guidance in light of regulatory changes introduced in November 2019 - follow this link for revised guidance.)

Following questions on the guidance, we moved onto a general panel discussion, kicking off with “Top tips for starting an in-house pro bono programme”.  The panel came up with three priorities: getting internal support; asking for external support; and considering the practicalities.

All panellists agreed that internal support was crucial to building a successful pro bono programme. They advised looking for senior people who are passionate about pro bono to champion the work and be an advocate for the project. Alongside this, they encouraged establishing a pro bono committee to share the expertise and workload. They also recommended surveying the legal team to find out what they are passionate about and trying to build up a programme that matches those passions.

The panel discussed the importance of communication, and stressed that the best way to gather momentum is by sharing your stories and successes around your team and your organisation. Beyond this, it was important to consider how you can celebrate success and discussed innovative methods being championed in certain organisations, such as one organisation which pledges a cash sum to a charity of your choice for every pro bono hour you record.

The panel then went on to talk about what external support in-house teams might want to engage. They recommended picking up the phone and calling pro bono managers (or similar) at friendly law firms. It was mentioned that these managers can be a great source of guidance, inspiration and potential collaboration. They might be able to help in-house teams develop bespoke projects, allow them to join existing projects, and are a useful first stop when trying to understand the pro bono landscape.

In-house teams were also encouraged to speak to LawWorks about their programmes. The Not-for-Profits programme was particularly highlighted as an easy way to source one-off pro bono projects for in-house teams. The team circulates fortnightly casework opportunities, which can be forwarded on to interested members of the legal team. 

Aspiring pro bono leads were also encouraged to get to know the “pro bono sector” where you can meet great people, who in turn can help provide guidance and inspiration.

All the panellists recognised that insurance can be one of the first hurdles any in-house team may need to overcome. It is possible that your directors and officers (D&O) liability insurance will cover your pro bono work – ask! Some in-house teams have also sourced external insurance for all their pro bono work. Projects carried out through LawWorks are covered by LawWorks’ insurance. Certain advice bodies, such as Citizens Advice and law centres, might also be able to provide insurance cover for volunteers if they volunteer for that organisation.  Additionally, it was flagged that some firms can bring an in-house teams’ pro bono work under their insurance.

Legal teams starting a pro bono programme were also encouraged to try to record pro bono hours carried out by the team as this allows them to report internally. It was also suggested that at the end of each matter would be  a good idea to review the case and send an overview to the GC outlining who was involved and the impact made.

The panel then moved on to discuss “sourcing pro bono opportunities”, and had eight key messages: 

  • Consider joining an organisation – such as LawWorks – which sources opportunities for you.
  • Talk to law firms who might be able to introduce you to the right people of put you on the right track.
  • Use in-team contacts and networks. Your own colleagues could be your best source of pro bono opportunities.
  • Pro bono can be a great way to upskill and gain experience in areas of law relevant to career progression – consider the sub-specialisms in your team, and areas that you or others might be looking to develop then scope projects which will use these specialisms.
  • Think about what organisations need – do you have GDPR experts? Then charities will want your help!
  • Diversity of projects/opportunities can help ensure there’s something for everyone to get involved in.
  • If you want to involve all your legal team – including non-lawyers, non UK lawyers, etc., – take this into consideration at the scoping stage. This can be accommodated by getting people to work in teams, for example with a lawyer paired with a non-lawyer.
  • Build strong relationships with your pro bono clients and they will come back to you with repeat work. An example is the Honorary Counsel scheme at LawWorks, where you provide ongoing legal support as and when it is needed.

Following this, the panel looked more closely at “partnerships between in-house teams and firms”.

The panel discussed key questions a firm might need to ask when having an initial discussion with an in-house team:

  • What is your main objective?
  • Do you have a theme you want to focus on?
  • Do you want to link your pro bono work to your industry?
  • Do you have targets/incentives for your team?
  • What are the constraints?
  • Balance of work between desk based and meeting clients?
  • How far out of your legal comfort zone are you willing to go?
  • Do you want a bespoke project or to join something well established?

The key message was, don’t worry if your response is: ‘I don’t know’ or ‘a little bit of both/all’, just to be aware that these are the types of questions that can help in firm pro bono managers to understand what the in-house team is looking to develop.

The panel discussed the benefits of working with firms, such as their access to greater resources -including pro bono managers/coordinators who can support the developing and running of a project; and firms’ ability to help source opportunities, training, insurance; and to coordinate communications. They might also have a different footprint orreach in terms of geography and focus which can lead to fertile collaboration.

It was flagged that in-house lawyers can bring a different perspective to private practice lawyers; working within the client they are more aware of the day-to-day challenges faced by businesses and the wider business context of legal issues faced.

It was acknowledged by the room that some of the perceived problems with collaboration can include in-house lawyers feeling like they are “having their homework marked” and not understanding the value they have added to the project. It was stressed across the panel that it is important to have clear communication at the start about how the project shall be managed and run.

It was agreed that ways to promote a good working relationship with a firm include:

  • Being completely up-front from the start about the objectives of the project and who is responsible for which pieces of work.
  • Having open lines of communications. One of the biggest challenges is a perceived power imbalance. Deal with this at the start.
  • Consider having a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).

Following a question from the floor, it was discussed how many organisations look at the pro bono activities of firms when scoping their legal panel. It was agreed that this is also an opportunity to change behaviour by letting an organisation’s interest and preference for active pro bono lawyers be known during pitches.

Finally the panel discussed “wider sector collaboration”, and Deborah from Goldman and Sachs outlined that a group of in-house lawyers have recently launched the UK In House Pro Bono Working Group (the “Group”). Supported by a Steering Committee, the Group’s aims are to:

  • Foster: Foster a culture of commitment to pro bono.
  • Promote: Promote and improve pro bono service and delivery.
  • Share: Share knowledge, best practice and resources to build and strengthen in-house pro bono practice.
  • Connect: Connect in-house lawyers, charities and pro bono professionals through networking and communication.
  • Collaborate: Work together through collaboration to make the best use of our unique skill set and training for the benefit of others.

Overall the event was an excellent opportunity for in-house lawyers from very different teams, and different stages in their pro bono involvement, to share ideas, concerns, tips and tricks to help build and support the work of solicitor pro bono. At LawWorks, we are very clear that the event was the start of the conversation, and one we hope to build on over the coming months. We have recently done an audit of all our programmes to ensure that they are all able to accommodate interested in-house teams as well as allowing collaboration between member teams and firms on all programmes. 

If any in-house teams, or firms, have any questions about this work please do not hesitate to contact Rebecca Wilkinson.

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