It goes without saying that all pro bono is good. Law firms should rightly be commended for their considerable and ever-increasing dedication to improving access to justice and giving back to their communities, as covered in detail throughout this issue. But as George Orwell might have said, had he been a legal consultant, some pro bono is better than others.
At least, that’s the argument put forth by the lawyers behind New Perimeter, a nonprofit affiliate launched by DLA Piper in 2005 that partners with a range of corporations and NGOs in order to provide pro bono assistance. Director Lisa Dewey, who is also DLA’s U.S. pro bono partner, claims that such collaboration results in a more efficient and effective service.
She raises an interesting point. As Big Law has globalized, so too has pro bono. That represents both opportunity and challenge. With their greater resources and geographic breadth, top international firms are now better placed than ever to assist in less economically developed jurisdictions, where the need for pro bono is often greatest. But running a project in, say, sub-Saharan Africa is very different from running one in the States. In the U.S., a well-established linkage between law firms and charitable organizations already exists, ensuring a steady flow of information and, ultimately, engagements. Further afield, the imperative is for firms to establish and develop those relationships.
Sometimes, teaming up with a local partner is not just beneficial, but essential. In some jurisdictions, regulatory restrictions prevent foreign attorneys from practicing, for example. But even beyond such practical barriers, collaboration with organizations that already know the landscape well can help ensure that pro bono initiatives meet a priority need, don’t replicate existing efforts and are delivered in a culturally sensitive manner. “We’re often working in jurisdictions where the firm doesn’t have a local presence, so it would be foolish for us to come in and unilaterally implement a project without fully understanding the local needs and context,” says Sara Andrews, a senior international pro bono counsel at DLA Piper and New Perimeter’s assistant director. “As a global law firm, we don’t want to impose a viewpoint that could be seen as insensitive or imperialistic.”
In Kosovo, for example, New Perimeter helped rebuild the country’s legal system after a decade of devastating conflict in the 1990s left the southeastern European country in tatters. “We provided a lot of comparative research and made some suggestions,” Andrews says. “But we wanted local lawyers to develop laws in accordance with their own viewpoints.”
Collaboration also offers a diversity of perspectives, as well as relevant expertise—something that is particularly valuable on more specialist pro bono projects. The International Bar Association’s eyeWitness to Atrocities project, which was launched in 2015, for example, developed a free mobile app that allows video footage of human rights abuses to be independently authenticated so that it is admissible in court. The IBA partnered with U.S.-based research and analytics giant LexisNexis, which provided a secure electronic storage facility for the data files, ensuring that they could not be tampered with and protecting the anonymity of the individual who filmed and submitted the video. The eyeWitness app has been downloaded by users in more than 130 countries.
“It was the perfect example of the combined strength of the three main players in pro bono: NGOs, in this instance the IBA; lawyers; and corporations. The project would not have been able to happen without all three working together,” says IBA executive director Mark Ellis. “This level of collaboration will be the next big development in pro bono. The more we all move to a partnership approach, the greater our collective impact will be.”