After months of research, International can reveal the 10 best law firms for pro bono in the U.K., as the country celebrates its 20th annual Pro Bono Week.

In what has been a particularly busy year for pro bono matters in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, 45 large commercial law firms submitted their pro bono figures for the past year to be considered as one of the firms with the best practices in the country.

The top 10 firms were selected based on six key metrics: the total number of pro bono hours worked in the U.K. in the last financial year; the number of pro bono hours per fee earner; the percentage of lawyers doing pro bono; the number of full- or part-time pro bono professionals; whether pro bono work counts towards lawyers’ utilisation targets; and how the firm’s efforts were rated by their peers.

Honourable mentions

Competition for the coveted top 10 places was intense. Several firms took meaningful strides to develop their pro bono practices in the 12 months to April 2021 but did not quite make the ranking.

These included Eversheds Sutherland, which boosted its number of dedicated pro bono professionals by appointing a global head of pro bono and two principal pro bono lawyers in 2020 and 2021, respectively. The firm has also utilised its U.K. geographical spread to provide pro bono advice in major cities including Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham and Cardiff. Eversheds and Reed Smith were among the latest firms to start counting pro bono hours towards lawyers’ utilisation targets.

Debevoise & Plimpton, meanwhile, saw its pro bono hours per lawyer jump significantly over the past year, as did Cooley.

Ashurst has worked on a number of meaningful projects this year, including launching its Anti-Modern Slavery initiative – the firm has clocked 744 hours of pro bono support on that project this year alone. The firm also worked alongside Reed Smith to set up an urgent response to the Afghanistan repatriation relief efforts.

Some Ashurst lawyers gave up their own time over the holidays to work on the project.

Elsewhere, Herbert Smith Freehills launched a variety of valuable pro bono initiatives over the past year on topical issues such as increasing pro bono support for organisations that address racial inequality. Meanwhile, while White & Case aided the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in their response to the pandemic. Starting in March 2020, more than 200 of its lawyers and legal staff in 33 offices pulled together research on emergency decrees in 77 countries as quickly as possible.

Clifford Chance, Ropes & Gray and Sidley Austin also undertook notable mandates throughout the year and expanded their commitment to pro bono internally. Clifford Chance increased its total number of hours to 33,600, while Ropes and Sidley also saw large increases as well as strong internal engagement, with almost all of their lawyers doing such work.

The Top 10

10. Arnold & Porter

  • Number of U.K. pro bono hours worked: 5,312
  • Pro bono hours per U.K. fee earner: 93
  • Percentage of lawyers of doing pro bono: 100%
  • Count towards utilisation targets? Yes

Despite having just 57 lawyers in its London office, Arnold & Porter’s workforce racked up the highest number of pro bono hours per fee earner over the past year, with every single lawyer in the office having worked on pro bono matters. The firm also took on a high-profile pro bono base last year as part of the inquest into the death of a newborn baby, Harry Richford, at a London hospital in November 2017. Arnold & Porter’s team, led by London partner Jackie Mulryne, brought to light the failings of the NHS Trust in preventing Harry’s death, with a coroner finding in early 2020 that Harry’s death had been “wholly avoidable”.

Beirut blast. Credit: Wikipedia

9. Latham & Watkins

  • Number of U.K. pro bono hours worked: 23,030
  • Pro bono hours per U.K. fee earner: 48
  • Percentage of lawyers of doing pro bono: 82%
  • Count towards utilisation targets? Yes

Latham & Watkins’ commitment to pro bono in the U.K. is dominated by its dedication to a range of clinics within London, including the Mermaids Transgender Name Change Clinic. The first clinic of its kind in the U.K., the initiative helps transgender individuals with questions on how to change their legal names and is led by lawyers from Latham’s LGBTQ+ Lawyers Group, an associate-led, firmwide affinity group for LGBTQ+ individuals and allies. The firm also took on 12 new engagements for long-standing client Save the Children, including a significant matter in response to the devastating port blast in Beirut last year. Meanwhile 82% of the firm’s 483 London lawyers took part in pro bono work over the year placing it among the top firms for the metric considering its size in the city, with the firm having added more than 8,000 additional hours to its pro bono count compared to last year.

Tech collaboration

8. DLA Piper

  • Number of U.K. pro bono hours worked: 29,962
  • Pro bono hours per U.K. fee earner: 37.8
  • Percentage of lawyers of doing pro bono: 74%
  • Count towards utilisation targets? No

DLA Piper has further grown its dedicated U.K. pro bono team of professionals in the past year, from 4.5 to 6.7, coming in second for the metric. The firm is recognised as a leader in the U.K. pro bono sphere for the depth of its bench strength and its geographical spread of law clinics, which covers major cities including London, Edinburgh and Leeds, but also its determination to stay at the forefront of pro bono innovation. The firm runs 10 end-to-end casework clinics across the width and breadth of the country, including four citizenship clinics just in collaboration with Kids in Need of Defense U.K. The firm is also set to introduce a cutting-edge technology into its international pro bono practice - including in the U.K. – by using a data management platform created by an Australian based NGO called Justice Connect Portal to streamline its efforts. The platform uses artificial intelligence technology to better track and manage the outcomes of each pro bono request the firm receives and to later provide relevant information and data to clients and stakeholders.

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament at night in London, UK

7. Weil Gotshal & Manges

  • Number of U.K. pro bono hours worked: 15,013
  • Pro bono hours per U.K. fee earner: 76
  • Percentage of lawyers of doing pro bono: 90%
  • Count towards utilisation targets? Yes

Weil Gotshal took on a major pro bono mandate in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to advise U.K. charity Social Investment Business, on the execution of £30million worth of emergency loans to charities and social enterprises across England, Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland via the ‘Resilience and Recovery Fund’ as the country grappled withe the effects of the lockdown. The firm performs strongly on several key metrics for pro bono, with 90% of its nearly 200 London-based lawyers participating in pro bono work in its last financial year – one of the highest-ranking firms of the cohort - and also placed fourth highest for the number of pro bono hours per fee earner, at 76.

6. Dechert

  • Number of U.K. pro bono hours worked: 12,782
  • Pro bono hours per U.K. fee earner: 87
  • Percentage of lawyers of doing pro bono: 100%
  • Count towards utilisation targets? Yes

Dechert’s pro bono work during the last financial year is notable for its exceptional variety, as well as the fact that the firm clocked the second-highest number of pro bono hours per fee earner in its 147-strong London office. The firm took on mandates to help asylum seekers from Afghanistan to understand the different legal routes available to them, as part of a collaboration with the Immigration Law Practitioners Association and five other law firms, and also gave advice relating to the Windrush Compensation Scheme alongside six others. The firm also lent its time to collaborate with the Mayor of London’s ‘Culture At Risk’ team and Studio Makers to help affordable artist studio providers avoid short-term cash flow collapse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Credit: Adobe Stock

5. Reed Smith

  • Number of U.K. pro bono hours worked: 21,759
  • Pro bono hours per U.K. fee earner: 66.5
  • Percentage of lawyers of doing pro bono: 81%
  • Count towards utilisation targets? Yes

Reed Smith’s commitment to U.K. pro bono is notable not only for its pro bono hours per fee earner undertaking pro bono matters – which, at 82, is especially high considering it is larger than many of its U.S. peers in London – but also for having two dedicated pro bono professionals overseeing UK matters. Another key indicator of management buy-in at the firm is its recent decision to include pro bono hours in utilisation targets, putting pro bono hours and billable work on the same level. London lawyers have taken on significant cases on behalf of Kids In Need of Defense U.K, which works to regularising the immigration status of undocumented children. Each case sees teams of eight lawyers clock up on average 300 hours over six months, and in 2020 the firm had six successful cases to help 15 clients to achieve fee waivers, leave to remain or British citizenship. The firm also has 35 of its lawyers signed up to participate in emergency injunctions work for the National Centre and to date has taken on 39 referrals, amounting to over 1,000 hours of pro bono time.

Hogan Lovells’ Washington, D.C., offices. Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

4. Hogan Lovells

  • Number of U.K. pro bono hours worked: 30,684
  • Pro bono hours per U.K. fee earner: 39.7
  • Percentage of lawyers of doing pro bono: 71%
  • Count towards utilisation targets? Yes

Hogan Lovells’ pro bono practice is held in very high regard across the industry, with the market-leading insights of newly-promoted pro bono partner Yasmin Waljee touted as “exceptional” by one person at a rival firm. The firm is also credited as having effective strategies in place to get lawyers in transactional practices on board with pro bono work – by all accounts, a relatively difficult feat given billable time pressures. The firm also has a deep bench of pro bono professionals in the U.K., with a full-time equivalent of nearly six lawyers working on pro bono matters, and boasts the second-highest number of total pro bono hours for the last year.

3. Shearman & Sterling

  • Number of U.K. pro bono hours worked: 12,822
  • Pro bono hours per U.K. fee earner: 82.7
  • Percentage of lawyers of doing pro bono: 88%
  • Count towards utilisation targets? No

Shearman & Sterling measured the highest number of pro bono hours per lawyer undertaking pro bono work in its 155-strong London office this year, with each fee-earner clocking up 94 hours. Considering the fact that pro bono doesn’t count towards targets, the fact that so many lawyers have worked so many pro bono hours is admirable and suggests an office-wide dedication to the sector among its lawyers. In April 2020 as the U.K. continued its first lockdown, the firm partnered with three other firms to support the National Centre for Domestic Violence in tackling a rising wave of domestic violence as vulnerable victims were unable to leave their situations. The firm spent 765 hours throughout the latest financial year on helping individuals injunction applications.

Afghan evacuation

2. Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe

  • Number of U.K. pro bono hours worked: 4,714
  • Pro bono hours per U.K. fee earner: 68
  • Percentage of lawyers of doing pro bono: 100%
  • Count towards utilisation targets? Yes

Orrick’s dedication to pro bono goes not only towards its internal projects but also raises the profile of pro bono across the wider U.K. market. The firm’s London-based head of international pro bono Amy Grunske is cited by countless peers as being a genuine leader in the pro bono scene, motivating other firms to get involved with wide-scale, impactful projects as part of the Collaborative Plan for Pro Bono organisation. She has been co-ordinating Collaborative Plan’s response to the Afghanistan refugee relief crisis, rallying a raft of firms to direct their resources towards the efforts. The firm is not as large as others in the U.K. but has a 100% pro bono engagement rate in its London office, and an average of 68 pro bono hours per fee earner over the year, making it one of the best for that metric. Orrick was also the first global law firm to launch an Impact Finance and Investment practice, aimed at supporting investors and entrepreneurs who aim to make social and environmental impacts alongside financial returns. Against a backdrop of rising ESG interest across the global markets, such an initiative is crucial in addressing demand for related legal advice without the costly price tag.

Credit: LittlePerfectStock/Shutterstock

1. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

  • Number of U.K. pro bono hours worked: 46,341
  • Pro bono hours per U.K. fee earner: 54
  • Percentage of lawyers of doing pro bono: 62%
  • Count towards utilisation targets? Yes

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has had a mammoth year for pro bono. The firm boosted its already-impressive pro bono hours total by more than 50% over the past year, to reach 46,341, putting it far ahead of any other firm. Most notably it increased its pro bono hours per lawyer figure to 53.9 – the highest of any large U.K. firm. The firm has maintained its strong reputation in U.K. pro bono over the past 12 months, both in terms of its market-leading mandates and its drive to push pro bono further up the agenda internally. A key pro bono mandate for the firm over the year included acting for U.K. activist Kate Wilson in her landmark case against undercover policing, after she was deceived into a relationship with an undercover police officer. In September, a Freshfields team headed up by the firm’s London global investigations group co-head Matthew Bruce won a tribunal case for breaches of Wilson’s human rights in a court win that made national headlines.


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