Amy Heading, UK Pro Bono Manager & Counsel (Senior Associate) at DLA Piper, considers whether the current trends transforming the legal industry can also reshape pro bono practices at City firms.
The private legal sector in the UK is undergoing a period of transition, with profound changes in the nature of legal practice being implemented in an effort to adapt to the shifting economic circumstances.
An increasingly competitive legal services environment has driven changes in work and compensation structures, with continued pressure for alternative and reduced fee arrangements, rather than the traditional hourly billing system. Firms are exploring new strategies to lower costs, including using technology such as e-discovery or shifting administrative and lower-end legal advisory work to low cost 'work centres' located outside major cities. The demographic landscape of the city firm is being reformed, with reduced numbers among trainee cohorts, and more varied career trajectories beyond the usual track of advancement to partnership.
The globalisation of the industry has meant that the UK legal market now receives over 60 per cent of its total revenue from non-domestic sources, an increase of nearly 200 per cent from a mere decade ago. Firms have expanded to meet the needs of their multinational corporation client base, that have themselves grown globally with the rise of international trade and the rapid development of financial and capital markets around the world.
These current trends will no doubt have an impact on the structure of City firms' pro bono programmes and their delivery of pro bono advice. This in turn presents an opportunity for those in pro bono management to use these trends to modernise, expand, and increase engagement in their practices.
Advancements in technology could, and should, be used in the pro bono space to optimise efficiency of processes. This applies particularly to clinic work for individuals, where the use of Skype and video conferencing facilities can significantly reduce travel time and ensure increased access to clients in geographically remote locations.
Pro bono should be aligned with and support the business needs of a firm, to increase financial and political investment from management. Strategic use of pro bono as a commercial client development method is particularly important for firms whose traditional client-firm ties may have been eroded by aggressive mergers and/or panel consolidation. Providing unique opportunities to partner on pro bono initiatives is particularly powerful in the context of continued regulatory restrictions on in-house lawyer pro bono. Pro bono opportunities in emerging markets in Latin America and Africa can also provide firms with an opportunity to engage with these jurisdictions and promote capabilities and credentials as part of their global expansion strategy.
The well-known benefits of pro bono such as staff recruitment and retention will be particularly relevant as more and more firms utilise the 'work centre' model, and look for ways to attract part-time and flexible working staff members and engage them with firm culture. As firms become larger, more complex, and more geographically dispersed, multi-jurisdictional pro bono projects can foster inter-office integration and relationships, as well as providing an opportunity to foster unity, firm pride and staff loyalty.
Finally, with rising pressure on compensation structures, including increased scrutiny of junior lawyer time recording by clients, pro bono work can provide unparalleled opportunities for high-quality training and development of a wide variety of skills, such as client interviewing, legal drafting and analysis, and court representation.
The private legal industry in the UK is transforming, and pro bono management should respond flexibly, using this opportunity to reshape their pro bono practices for the better.