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City firms are becoming stronger converts to the pro bono cause, but conservative Brits still cannot quite get used to the US example of firm-wide ventures and hourly targets. Caroline Grimshaw reports on the latest Big Question survey

More than 70% of City-based law firms have increased their pro bono commitments in the last three years, as the debate rages on over whether dedication to charitable causes is a cynical publicity ploy or an opportunity not to be missed.

In the latest Big Question survey by Legal Week together with EJ Legal, 40% of respondents said that their commitment to pro bono work has increased ‘a lot’ over the last three years, while 36% said it had increased a little. Only 3% saw a decrease in their commitment.

However, UK firms remain reluctant to impose the US model of allowing lawyers to count pro bono work toward billing targets. Only 32% of top UK law firms now operate a formal target for pro bono work, with the remainder operating no target.

Major UK practices Denton Wilde Sapte and Addleshaw Goddard are known to be among the minority allowing pro bono work done by associates to count towards their bonus.

Addleshaws litigation partner and diversity head Monica Burch (pictured) said: “I think 32% is surprisingly low. Graduates are constantly asking what pro bono work we are doing and, if it is so important to graduates and younger people, why isn’t it formalised?”

The survey, which drew responses from 140 partners, found 89% were opposed to mandatory firm-wide targets and 90% opposed to mandatory individual targets. In contrast, 78% are in favour of firm-wide ‘guidelines’ and 67% in favour of individual guidelines.

Linklaters litigation partner Mark Humphries (pictured) said: “I do not know any lawyers who think pro bono should be compulsory – one of the main features is that it must come as a voluntary contribution.”

Norton Rose managing partner Deirdre Walker added: “Pro bono forms part of our appraisal process but it is not something that is measured.”

The highly contentious issue of publicising pro bono activity divided opinion. The survey shows that 46% of firms thought it was healthy for firms to do so – encouraging them to commit to the cause.

However, 31% of firms said that publicity should come with more objective benchmarks to make for more meaningful comparison and 22% were uncomfortable with the concept of publicity – suggesting that work done should be kept private.

One respondent said: “What other industry imposes mandatory charitable targets on its workforce? In a world where no-one blinks when [some top] partners turn on each other because they think average partner profits of £845,000 are unacceptable relative to [their rivals], law firms parading their community credentials is sick.”

Humphries responded: “Clients expect us to commit resources to pro bono and to tell them about it. We are not in a position to hide our light under a bushel.”

Burch said: “In terms of getting a business to commit resource, the benefits include graduates thinking that they can do some good in working for you. You cannot achieve that without publicity.”

According to the survey, slightly more than half of firms (55%) believe the most effective way to boost pro bono activity is through firm-wide initiatives. Thirty-one percent thought the most effective way was to include pro bono work in billing targets.

Beachcroft national commercial property partner Virginia Clegg, who recently led a 90-lawyer team on a pro bono project to renovate a primary school in the West Midlands, said: “I do not believe people should have to get involved – it is about finding projects that chime with people so that they can commit.”

Opinion was also divided on how good the existing pro bono efforts of large commercial firms currently are. Only 12% said ‘excellent’, with 34% saying ‘good but could improve’. Thirty-six percent said ‘OK’, 16% ‘should do better’ and 2% said ‘risible’.

Walker said: “It is rightly on the agenda, so that is really good compared with 10 years ago. But there is always room for improvement.”

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