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Disclosure divides profession with partners at US-based firms backing moves to rank and publish firms’ pro bono commitments, while UK partners are still to be convinced. Claire Ruckin reports

Senior lawyers remain deeply ambivalent regarding attempts to rank and disclose pro bono activity despite a clear majority believing such initiatives would boost commercial firms’ non-profit activities.

This is the key finding of the latest Big Question survey, which found that 63% of respondents believe that ranking firms’ commitments to pro bono would increase the level of pro bono work undertaken. A further 9% said that such a league would ‘greatly increase’ pro bono activity, while 28% believed it would have no effect or a negative impact.

However, many senior lawyers still oppose such disclosure, with 37% of respondents claiming to have ‘mixed feelings’ over such a move, while a further 23% were either ‘against’ or ‘strongly against’ it. Forty percent said they were in favour, including 7% of respondents that said they were ‘strongly in favour’.

CMS Cameron McKenna dispute resolution partner Susan Barty said: “Generally, transparency is a good thing but I am not convinced league tables are an effective measure of pro bono. Any league tables are difficult but more so in pro bono where it would be hard to standardise firms’ efforts. Having said that, it might increase the level of a firm’s commitment to pro bono as they will make sure their figures look as good as can be.”

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer litigation partner Paul Lomas (pictured) commented: “Pro bono is something you do voluntarily and genuinely. Rankings could turn the process into a competitive activity whereby firms try to seek credit for and warp work undertaken in order to look good.

“This is not what pro bono should be about. Sometimes you do things because they are the right thing to do and you can lose that when you seek public credit for it.”

The poll of senior lawyers also found strong misgivings over whether it was possible to construct a robust model to rank not-for-profit activities. Nearly one in three respondents (30%) said it would be ‘very difficult’ to come up with a workable model, with a further 47% believing it would be ‘quite hard’.

The findings did, however, reveal widely differing attitudes between partners at UK law firms, who were generally against disclosure of pro bono commitments, and a more positive reaction from partners at US-based law firms, where such initiatives are well established.

David Ryan (pictured left), managing partner at Pinsent Masons, said: “I would imagine it would require quite a lot of work to come up with a workable model. While there are certain absolute measurements, such as hours spent, it is far harder to measure the impact of what you are doing, which can be more important.”

Lovells disputes partner Nicholas Cheffings commented: “Simply measuring hours spent (which incidentally would discriminate against smaller firms) is not the ideal measure of commitment. The real test must surely be to attempt to identify what benefits the hours spent have brought to disadvantaged communities, individuals or charitable organisations. Ultimately, the only relevant question is: ‘did you make a difference?’.”

Meanwhile, 17% of lawyers questioned thought pro bono rankings would have a considerable impact on recruitment at a junior level, while incomparison 62% of respondents thought rankings would have a minor positive impact on recruitment.

Ryan added: “Ranking pro bono activities would have a very positive impact on a law firm’s ability to recruit at a junior level in terms of both lawyers and business support staff.”

Lomas countered: “Recruits are interested if a firm does pro bono work and if they do it well it is attractive toapplicants.

“However, recruits are smart and will use their own due diligence to work out what a firm’s commitments are. I doubt whether they would take league tables at face value.”

Davies Arnold Cooper disputes partner Steven Friel commented: “Pro bono work is indeed to be encouraged, and those lawyers and firms that undertake worthwhile voluntary work should be lauded and recognised for so doing. As with any other profession, and perhaps more so, we lawyers have certain duties to the community at large.”

However, he warned: “To encourage those lawyers who do not yet undertake pro bono work, we should appeal to their sense of good-natured professionalism and not employ the threat of naming and shaming.”

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