This is the second article in a continuing series about “Pro Bono in Hong Kong”. These articles are written by members of the Law Society’s Pro Bono Committee, and are intended to promote pro bono practices in Hong Kong.
The focus of this article is “How Your Firm Can Start A Pro Bono Programme”. The information here is not just for managing partners (or other partners) in a law firm. Oftentimes, initiatives for starting a pro bono programme come from younger lawyers eager to contribute to society. So although naturally the steps to formalise a pro bono programme in your firm need to be undertaken by (and have the support) of firm management, this article is written as more of a “how to” guide intended for everyone in the firm who would like to see a pro bono programme develop and flourish. If your firm already has a pro bono programme, you may find some useful tips for augmenting and enhancing your current programme. Also, this article’s focus is on pro bono legal work (as opposed to community service work that falls into the category of “CSR” - corporate social responsibility”).
There are already some ad hoc programmes that allow lawyers on an individual basis to participate in various forms of pro bono work in Hong Kong. For example, the Duty Lawyer Scheme and the Free Legal Helpline offer ways for solicitors to provide pro bono legal advice. You can explore those by contacting The Duty Lawyer Service (www.dutylawyer.org.hk) and The Law Society of Hong Kong, respectively.
Canvassing is a good first step - If your firm has yet to set up have a pro bono programme, the first thing you should know is that it is relatively easy to start one! But keep in mind - start small, and don’t be too ambitious. Starting and maintaining a pro bono programme is a commitment - that doesn’t mean that it is overwhelming or all-encompassing, or that it prevents you from attending to your fee-paying clients or other activities, but it is a commitment nonetheless and requires at least some legwork. Whether you are a partner or an associate, you can start by canvassing others in the firm. Is there an appetite and desire to start a pro bono programme? You do not need every lawyer to be keen to participate in doing pro bono work, but you’ll need a minimum - even two or three lawyers are enough (and in some cases, even just a single lawyer can carry the torch to start a firm’s pro bono programme).
As part of the canvassing, determine what capacity the firm has for doing pro bono work - How many lawyers are interested? Do lawyers have time in their schedule? If everyone is already working more than 10 (or 12 or 15) hours a day, then it’s not an ideal time to start a pro bono programme unless work can be shifted or reallocated. You should also get input from those interested in pro bono to see if they want to have a particular focus for the pro bono programme - for example, the focus could be a practice area or type of client (e.g., doing “corporate” or other transactional work for NGOs; assisting domestic helpers or migrant workers; helping people with disabilities; etc.). Even if the lawyers in the firm do not express a particular interest or focus (literally sometimes people say “I’d like to work on anything that can help other people”), you can still plough ahead in starting your programme.
Once you have determined that there is interest among at least a small group of lawyers to do pro bono work, you should form a “pro bono committee” within the firm, and seriously consider including even your most junior lawyers or trainees on the committee. The pro bono committee does not need to be strictly comprised of partners. Pretty much all of the large international firms include lawyers of all levels of their pro bono committees. Having a committee will allow the participants to feel as though they are stakeholders and can incentivise them to help with running the pro bono programme.
Types of pro bono clients to seek out - The types of pro bono legal work/clients typically fall into one of four categories:
- Marginalised, disadvantaged or low-income individuals
- NGOs and non-profits (including social enterprises) that serve marginalised, disadvantaged or low-income individuals
- Legal services to charitable, religious, civic and community organisations
- Pro bono training intended to benefit the types of organisations noted above, or to benefit other lawyers doing pro bono work
The fourth category might not be serving a pro bono client per se, but as an example, if lawyers in your firm are well-experienced in areas like data privacy or employment law, these are areas in which NGOs and non-profits (and lawyers providing pro bono advice to them) may need training and will benefit from your knowledge. Unless you or your contacts know individuals seeking pro bono legal services, it is generally easier (particularly when starting a pro bono programme) to work directly with - and get your pro bono legal work from - NGOs and other charitable organisations, as opposed to from individuals.
During your canvassing exercise (and as you continue to develop your firm’s pro bono programme), some additional points that you will want to consider include what practice areas you feel your firm is capable of doing, what criteria you may wish to apply for “client eligibility”, and what connections your firm may already have for potential clients. On “client eligibility”, you may want to be a little more flexible when starting your pro bono programme - for example, taking on a small social enterprise that happens to be a marginal profit-making venture, or doing work for a school or church. These entities might not technically be “impoverished” or destitute, but you could take a broader view that they would be better off spending their limited funds on community-related work as opposed to spending them on legal fees.
How to find pro bono clients - Some lawyers and firms have said that they do not engage in pro bono work because they cannot find pro bono clients. There are many avenues through which to find pro bono legal work, and potential pro bono clients are often within easier reach than you might think. Also, the landscape for identifying potential pro bono clients is much easier today than it was even just ten years ago. As part of the canvassing work that you’ll do as your first step, you can ask your lawyers if they have any suggestions or can put out feelers - oftentimes personal contacts of your lawyers can result in good connections for pro bono work. Your lawyers can ask their friends and people in their social circle, church groups (or ministers), and even some current clients who you happen to know are involved in charitable or community services. When reaching out like this (and depending on your firm’s capabilities and your position on “client eligibility”), consider letting your contacts know that you are open to a diverse menu of pro bono work, and then pick what you find most attractive or most interesting.
In addition to putting out your own feelers through your personal contacts and those of lawyers in your firm, there are organisations in Hong Kong that serve as “clearinghouses” for pro bono work or that otherwise provide opportunities to match pro bono lawyers/law firms with potential pro bono clients. The Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS) is a statutory body that provides information and assistance to over 3,000 social enterprises and other charitable and community-focused organisations. They have a number of activities and events throughout the year where lawyers can do networking to find possible pro bono clients.
Your firm can also participate in The Law Society’s Free Legal Consultation Service, in which law firms agree to provide an initial free consultation to the public (up to 45 minutes) in one of 24 practice areas. (www.choosehklawyer.org)
Finally, use the same ingenuity and creativity as when you seek paying clients - attend community events, be inquisitive, and put yourself into positions where you are likely to find sources of pro bono work, such as through civic organisations, community groups, churches, etc. Sometimes you need to be proactive to find clients (both paying and pro bono), and sometimes the work seems to find you!
Be recognised for what you do - Get the word out that your firm does (and is willing to do) pro bono work. Once you establish a programme, put it on your website, and participate in the recognition schemes run by The Law Society and others.
If you need help starting a pro bono programme in your law firm, reach out to The Law Society’s Pro Bono Committee - we are here to help!