Rio De Janeiro.
Rio De Janeiro. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons.)

DLA Piper’s Washington-based pro bono partner, Lisa Dewey, left the United States on Saturday night to spread her work to a new frontier.

Brazil in June became the newest country to open itself up to free legal counsel offered by private lawyers. Dewey, colleagues from DLA Piper in London and South Africa and a number of partnering organizations in Brazil and elsewhere traveled to São Paulo to educate lawyers this week on international pro bono opportunities.

The DLA-led seminar intends to help build the country’s pro bono infrastructure and culture.

“There seems to be a great desire to do pro bono and a great interest,” Dewey said last week of the seminar. “That’s kind of the starting point, and there’s also a lot of interest in how does it work in other places.”

For years, the Brazilian bar association had steep regulations against lawyers offering pro bono legal services, for fear it would undercut business, according to Oscar Vilhena Vieira, dean of the law school at Fundação Getulio Vargas and an advocate for pro bono work, and Esther Lardent, president of the Washington-based Pro Bono Institute. People who couldn’t afford legal services could receive them from federal outlets or nonprofit groups, Vilhena said.

But many poor Brazilians’ legal needs weren’t met. Marginalized groups, such as indigenous people or the elderly, and people in the criminal justice system needed help with human rights or civil rights cases, Vilhena said.

Lawyers and legal education leaders in Brazil advocated for the country to broaden its allowances, and the federal bar association agreed.

“People now have an environment that is absolutely friendly to pro bono activities,” Vilhena said. “Even though we have the traditional pro bono, in fact, we need to understand better how to organize inside law firms.”

Every day this week, from 8 until noon, about 30 lawyers and law students will gather in classrooms in São Paulo. Through translation, they’ll listen to teachers, including Dewey and others, explain how pro bono works. The seminar ended with a planning session that looped in members of the legal community outside of the seminar attendees.

Lardent, who lectured at the seminar via Skype, said it’s often difficult for American lawyers to work on pro bono cases in some foreign countries. Some countries have rules that prohibit foreign lawyers in their courts, or the network of intermediaries that link lawyers to cases may be limited.

In Brazil, foreign lawyers have opportunities to research and provide background materials for cases, Vilhena said.

Or in the case of DLA Piper—which has offices in the United States, Asia, Europe and the Middle East , works in cooperation with Campos Mello Advogados in Brazil and with firms in other countries and has a nonprofit arm dedicated to global pro bono work—the firm provides training. Dewey’s group co-hosted similar training sessions on pro bono beginning in 2008 in Mexico, where pro bono is allowed but the tradition to provide free legal help isn’t strong.

Updated at 4:30 p.m. March 28.

Contact Katelyn Polantz at On Twitter: @kpolantz.