(Illustration by Marina Muun) 

In the US legal profession, it is a well-entrenched principle that lawyers have an ethical obligation to provide pro bono legal services to poor clients. The American Bar Association, in its Model Rules of Professional Conduct, states that “every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay,” and the association recommends that each lawyer donate a minimum of 50 hours of pro bono service per year. (In Latin, pro bono means “for good.”)

But outside the United States and a handful of other countries, including Australia and the United Kingdom, the practice of pro bono has been slow to emerge within legal circles. In many countries, government support for legal aid has limited the need for private lawyers to offer free services. Bar associations in some countries, moreover, have favored protectionist policies that inhibit the pursuit of pro bono work. In certain jurisdictions, providing free legal services is forbidden.

In recent years, though, interest in pro bono work has increased among lawyers worldwide. Pro bono clearinghouses that connect lawyers with clients who need assistance have emerged in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Conferences on pro bono hosted by organizations like the Global Network for Public Interest Law (PILnet) draw private-sector lawyers from countries throughout Europe and Asia. Significantly, meanwhile, a growing number of global law firms are extending their pro bono efforts to developing regions.

Various factors have contributed to the expansion of pro bono legal work. Austerity measures in many countries have decreased government funding for legal aid. At the same time, deep gaps in access to justice continue to affect the world’s most vulnerable populations. Closing those gaps will require far-reaching and creative solutions. Pro bono services on their own cannot meet the need, nor can they replace government-funded legal aid. But they can certainly help broaden access to legal assistance.

Global law firms are in a particularly good position to expand the scope of pro bono work. Many of them have offices in developing countries or strong relationships with local firms in those countries. In addition, an increasing number of global firms employ full-time pro bono lawyers. These lawyers have experience in managing pro bono programs and in figuring out how their colleagues can maximize the impact of those programs.

Our firm, DLA Piper, is one example of this trend. DLA Piper has about 4,200 lawyers and operates in more than 30 countries. Through New Perimeter, its nonprofit affiliate, the firm sends teams of its lawyers to work on pro bono projects in a wide range of countries—projects that support access to justice, social and economic development, and the creation of sound legal institutions. (We both help manage New Perimeter.)

Of course, not all law firms have the resources needed to support pro bono projects outside their home country. And some people reasonably argue that lawyers should focus their pro bono efforts on problems in their own community. But we believe that global law firms can and should push the boundaries of pro bono legal practice. Lawyers from these firms can encourage and equip lawyers in underserved countries to engage in pro bono work. They can also provide expertise and resources to strengthen legal systems and the rule of law around the world.

Training for Good

Inspiring and enabling lawyers around the world to incorporate pro bono projects into their practice is an important service that global law firms can provide. Training the next generation of lawyers about the value of donating a portion of their time to public interest work will promote a culture that favors pro bono service.

Through New Perimeter, DLA Piper lawyers are training law students in three Latin American countries (Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico) and in Turkey about the nature and purpose of pro bono legal services. This training “really opens your eyes,” says Isaac Jacobo de Leon Mendoza, a law student in Mexico. “It tells you that you’re a lawyer starting a professional career. Not everyone has that [qualification], so you need to share that [asset] with less fortunate people.” Another lawyer from Mexico, who went through New Perimeter training when she was a student, told us that the training inspired her to start the first-ever pro bono program at the firm where she now works.

In countries that lack a robust legal infrastructure, global law firms have a vital role to play in helping to strengthen legal institutions.

The impact of these training projects extends further, according to Maru Cortazar, executive director of Mexico Appleseed, an organization that partners with New Perimeter. “To change culture is not an easy thing to do, but when lawyers and [law] students see what is happening in other parts of the world, they are motivated to do pro bono,” she says. “We are now receiving calls from the legal departments of corporations and from universities and law firms. They are asking us to give them cases, because they are willing to work on pro bono.”

Brazil presents a notable opportunity for New Perimeter. Recently, for example, the bar association in São Paolo lifted restrictions on pro bono work. For the past two years, New Perimeter has collaborated with several organizations—including Fundação Getúlio Vargas Law School; Instituto Pro Bono, a Brazilian nonprofit; and PILnet—to deliver a week-long course on pro bono in that city. The course enables law students, along with people from all parts of the Brazilian legal profession, to contribute to a conversation about access to justice in their country.

New Perimeter has also joined with several groups—including Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia Community Legal Education (BABSEA CLE), an international nonprofit that supports university- and community-based legal education programs; Herbert Smith Freehills, a UK-based global law firm; and the office of the Australian Government Solicitor—to develop a curriculum for Southeast Asian law students that covers legal ethics, access to justice, and other issues. In Myanmar, with funding from the United Nations Development Programme, BABSEA CLE and New Perimeter are helping to bring clinical legal education programs to university law departments throughout the country. Through these efforts, New Perimeter and its partners aim to help faculty members train a new generation of pro-bono-minded lawyers.

Strengthening the Law

In countries that lack a robust legal infrastructure, global law firms have a vital role to play in helping to strengthen legal institutions and to advance the rule of law. They can do so in various ways—from providing educational services that build legal capacity to assisting in the creation of new laws or new legal systems.

In Namibia, New Perimeter has worked to expand access to justice in all parts of the country. The legal profession in Namibia is small, and most Namibian lawyers live in the capital city, Windhoek. As a result, legal services have been out of reach for the nearly 70 percent of Namibians who live in rural areas. New Perimeter provided assistance to the Namibia Paralegal Association (NPA), an organization that deploys more than 200 lay advocates. These advocates provide a wide range of services to rural Namibians who would otherwise have no means to defend their rights. DLA Piper lawyers, through New Perimeter and in collaboration with the University of Maryland School of Law, developed an up-to-date manual for NPA advocates and created a program that helps train advocates on the substance of the manual.

In Kosovo, New Perimeter worked over a 10-year period to strengthen the rule of law and to build the legal capacity of that nascent country. A team of DLA Piper lawyers traveled frequently to Kosovo and—in partnership with the National Center for State Courts, a US nonprofit that supports improvements in judicial administration—helped local groups draft the laws that formed Kosovo’s prosecutorial and court systems. Alongside that effort, DLA Piper lawyers provided mentoring and training to lawyers in the Kosovo Ministry of Justice. To help Kosovar lawyers operate within the newly created justice system, New Perimeter held seminars on topics such as legal ethics and the conduct of lawyer disciplinary proceedings. New Perimeter also joined with local lawyers to develop strategies to increase the representation of women and ethnic minorities in the Kosovar legal profession.

Global pro bono work can have a significant and lasting impact. In 2010, the Kosovo Assembly passed—and the president of Kosovo then signed—the laws that New Perimeter helped to develop. Many of the lawyers who received training via New Perimeter have assumed senior leadership positions in government or in civil society. Arben Xheladini, formerly a lawyer in the Ministry of Justice, is now a legal advisor to the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo. “The period when I was in close contact with the experts from DLA Piper was of decisive impact on my career,” he says. “The benefits I gained were not only professional but also [related to] increasing self-confidence and courage.”

Law firms reap tangible benefits from this type of work as well. Those benefits include opportunities for team building, the promotion of cultural literacy and leadership skills among employees, and improvements in employee recruitment and retention. Lawyers at DLA Piper report that participating in New Perimeter projects increases their level of professional satisfaction. Take Jeremy Lustman, a partner at the firm who worked on a pro bono teaching project in South Africa. “On a personal level, it was very special to spend a week with DLA colleagues from various practice groups and offices,” Lustman says. “This experience provided an opportunity to learn from each other, and [it made] us better integrated colleagues.”

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