Pro Bono Work: Lawyers working for good

Heard that joke about how 99 per cent of lawyers make the rest look bad? Or Winston Churchill’s assessment that “Lawyers occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.” Is there any other profession that has a whole comedy genre dedicated to it?

Sure, some of it’s funny, (and some is entirely unprintable here!) but it’s also pretty unfair. Not only is a thriving legal profession essential to a functioning society, most take that role seriously and provide free assistance to those who need it most, says Kirsty Spears, Director at McLeod Duminy Careers.

“We see ‘pro bono’ and volunteer work included on almost all the CVs we get through, indicating how widespread volunteering is within the legal fraternity,” she says. “By volunteering their services, those in the legal profession are contributing to the betterment of society in a number of ways.”

Spears notes that it is no coincidence that the Latin words ‘pro bono publico’ translate to ‘for the public good’; they are usually abbreviated to simply ‘pro bono’. “The profession here can easily be tarred with the same brush as it is in the USA, and the ‘Better Call Saul’ image springs to mind, but actually we see a strong social conscience among most of our candidates.”

Some of the causes and organisations to which she has seen lawyers freely contributing expertise include the Student Army after the Christchurch earthquakes, a person setting up a scholarship with charitable status at her old school, another acting as treasurer for the local marae, a co-ordinator for a mentoring program, and volunteering as a fire fighter. “And we often see candidates expressing an interest in the Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives of the firms to which they are applying. Lawyers still want to make a difference and get involved.”

Elizabeth Bennie, General Manager at law firm Grimshaws says that when recruiting, volunteering is well regarded. “Not so much for the experience gained as for the demonstration of being well-rounded and having interests outside work and university,” she explains, adding that volunteering at the Citizens Advice Bureau or Community Law Centre is now pretty standard for all candidates.

Grimshaws, adds Bennie, supports the Sargeson Fellowship financially and through marketing and other non-financial means, and like many legal firms, it sponsors multiple community and other events, participates in fundraising including recently for a hospital burns unit, and uses Eat My Lunch’s catering service for internal events and contribute to their ‘buy one, give one’ philosophy.

A similar picture is seen at Simpson Grierson. A spokesperson says the company encourages, supports and values volunteer work, providing avenues for employees to take part. “In Wellington, staffers cook dinner once every month for the families of sick children at Ronald McDonald House in Newtown; our Auckland staff recently spent their lunch hour packaging thousands of pens for Youthline to sell, and our people regularly mentor children at Orakei Primary School.”

The company goes further, last year partnering with 55 organisations to provide pro bono advice. “Volunteering is an important factor for many candidates. It shows our values align with theirs. And in the recruitment process, volunteering is viewed positively and is a factor in the overall quality of the application.  We’re seeing it much more in CVs, with young lawyers showing highly developed social consciences contributing freely.”

At Martelli McKegg, lawyer Timothy Orr has a long personal history of volunteering, having worked with the United Nations in Geneva and in Kenya. “That included going into prisons and police stations to find and support those arrested and detained. It was unpaid but worth the sacrifice,” he says. “It makes you realise why you do what you do.”

Still heavily involved in volunteering through church, Rotary and the Auckland Restorative Justice Trust, Orr says his employer throws its full support behind his efforts. “This is a factor in choosing where I work. Every firm should recognise the value of giving back for personal and professional development – and being well-rounded and understanding your obligation to society has a positive business impact.”

A more structured approach is taken at Minter Ellison Rudd Watts (MERW), a spokesperson explains that every staff member gets one day of paid leave to devote to a social cause which they can pursue independently, or join one of the various organised initiatives firm-wide.”

At MERW volunteering is one of the factors that is taken into account in the recruiting process. “It is part of judging a candidate as being well rounded and having values aligned to ours. And graduates are increasingly interested to hear about what the firm does in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility.”

MERW encourages its employees to share their suggestions for pro bono work and most teams have a number of pro bono files they are working through. “We have long term relationships with a number of charities but we also help a large number of other charities or individuals in need.”

Spears says the commitment outlined by these top law firms is commonplace across New Zealand, and through individuals and firms at all levels. “It has been great to see and hear how much genuine passion there is for pro bono and volunteer work. Giving back is built into the profession – and most practitioners do so freely.” Some of those lawyer jokes are still pretty funny though.