A national firm will be the first in Australia to log half a million pro bono hours this year after being the first to develop an in-house pro bono practice in 1997.
Since pioneering the Australian in-house pro bono practice in 1997, Clayton Utz
has established a successful pro bono team led by partner David Hillard.
Hillard said the firm’s success is largely due to treating pro bono as a practice group like any other. He said the involvement of all lawyers is taken extremely seriously.
“I’m one of fourteen national practice group leaders here at Clayton Utz, pro bono is treated as a national practice group, we sit at the table with everyone else in relation to management decisions in terms of how the firm is run,” he said. “It’s a financial KPI for our lawyers to perform at least 40 hours of pro bono work each year, you’re not eligible for a promotion or a bonus unless you’ve been involved in pro bono work – we’re really serious about it being something we expect all of our lawyers to be involved in.”
While the pro bono culture in Australia is strong, Hillard said that with such an underfunded assistance program for legal services, it’s important that firms continue to take it seriously.
“The productivity commission issued an access to justice report after an extensive enquiry last year, they issued a report in December and they recommended that a further $200million needs to be put instantly into the legal assistance sector – that’s not going to happen, I suspect in the next budget,”
he said. “We have a significantly underfunded legal assistance sector and for firms like Clayton Utz, we can’t even hope to touch the sides in terms of what the access to justice gap is but it’s important that we try to do our part where we can.”
The enormous success of Clayton Utz’s pro bono program comes to light as the firm winds up a lengthy and highly publicised case involving a disadvantaged migrant treated as a slave in an Indian restaurant in Sydney’s CBD.
“It’s an example of a sort of matter that I think couldn’t have been run on anything other than a pro bono basis,” said Hillard. “Certainly a client who’s got absolutely no capacity to be able to afford legal representation, significant expenses in terms of covering interpreter costs as Mr Ram doesn’t speak English and really not something that could be done realistically on any sort of financial arrangement to conduct it. So a really good example of where pro bono assistance was really vital.”