Law for free? Why and how to do pro bono work as an in-house lawyer

Doing pro bono work can be challenging, but immensely rewarding. Sarah Oliver Scemla, director and assistant general counsel at Bank of America, explains the benefits of doing pro bono work and how to get involved.

If you apply the 80:20 rule – which asserts that 80% of outcomes (or outputs) result from 20% of all causes (or inputs) – doing pro bono is unquestionably an area in which you can have a meaningful, lasting impact on someone’s life, or the environment, in only an hour or two.

This is something I have seen first-hand, throughout my pro bono work – whether advising domestic workers on their rights, advising charities on reviewing and negotiating contracts or mentoring a refugee lawyer.

Being an in-house lawyer used to be a barrier to doing pro bono due to insurance coverage and regulatory restrictions.

Today many of these restrictions have now been addressed, which leaves us with vast opportunity to use our legal skills to give back to society in a constructive way.

Options for everyone

There are lots of options for doing pro bono work.

Whether you want to support social mobility, collaborate with environmental practitioners, or partner with wildlife organisations, there really is something for everyone.

I started doing pro bono work in 2015, when I was at a financial institution in Hong Kong.

In my first step into the pro bono world, I led workshops for migrant domestic workers on their rights.

It took time to research and prepare all the necessary content and information, but once this was complete, above the upfront investment of time, we were able to quickly scale and start rolling the service out.

We ended up providing valuable, tangible legal advice to groups of 20 women an hour. A few lawyers in the team had a rota going and we were able to consistently deliver workshops on a regular basis and provided support to over 100 women.

Ultimately, there proved to be so much interest in being part of the work, that I set up a pro bono programme for Asia-Pacific, which is still running today.

When I moved back to London, within months I set up a pro bono programme for Bank of America’s EMEA team – the temptation was too great not to. We now have a team of over 30 lawyers working on pro bono projects.

The projects cover everything from contract review and negotiation, research to support asylum seeker applications with Clifford Chance and drafting clauses to tackle climate change with The Chancery Lane Project, to casework supporting victims of domestic violence and research on international wildlife trafficking and the criminal justice response with Hogan Lovells for the Environmental Investigation Agency.

Some of these projects are one-offs and others are run by lawyers on an ongoing basis.

Our main criteria for supporting a pro bono project is that must benefit society for the long term.

“The corporate partnerships team at the Trussell Trust regularly deal with contracts and negotiation so it was very useful to have a refresher session on the latest details from an expert.

“As the cost of living crisis continues to bite and more people are being forced to turn to food banks, this legal expertise will be particularly valuable in enabling the Trussell Trust to best support people facing hardship.’’

David Sculthorpe, Senior Corporate Partnership Manager, Trussell Trust

Bank of America’s work is not unusual. In-house counsel across the board have built or are building pro bono opportunities into their plans and giving those involved necessary time and support to manage their workload.

The In-House Pro Bono Group, of which I am on the steering committee, currently has 130 members from over 63 organisations across the UK. We aim to bring the in-house pro bono community together, share knowledge, best practices, and resources to build and strengthen in house pro bono service and connect in-house lawyers, charities and pro bono professionals.

In-house counsel has a unique skillset that it can leverage to significantly benefit others.

“Having support from, and access to, expert in-house legal counsel has been invaluable for The Chancery Lane Project.

“It has empowered the project and enabled us to take the next step in tackling the climate crisis. It has transformed our impact and helped to embed systemic positive change.”

Becky Clissmann, managing director, The Chancery Lane Project

The value and benefits of volunteering your time to support pro bono work cannot be overstated. It offers opportunities to explore, improve and develop new skillsets; to network and work with lawyers within your organisation or other organisations; and it is a way of showing that you can manage a team or project and can get to grips with a new area of law.

“I have benefited greatly from my involvement in Bank of America’s pro bono programme. I am fortunate to partner with a senior member of the wider legal team, enabling me to expand my relationships with others in the department.

“I work across a real variety of projects and cases and the department are incredibly supportive. I get to use my skillset for good, while learning and having access to some interesting cases.”

Rosie Mitchell, VP, Bank of America

If you're not volunteering yet, but want to get involved, do take a look at the pro bono guide for in-house solicitors, which the Law Society published with LawWorks, the In House Pro Bono Group and the GC100.

The guide contains information on how to set up a successful foundation for a pro bono programme, how to look into insurance (organisations like LawWorks can provide insurance if needed, or you can work with a law firm), build a pro bono infrastructure and deliver pro bono advice.

Whether you are volunteering already or not, please do join the In-House Pro Bono Group to receive our regular email updates or join our roundtable sessions.

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