The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

By Maroulla Paul for CitySolicitor Magazine, Winter 2023 Edition

In the movie of our world, there are the good guys and the bad guys. The former usually come wearing white coats and save our lives - usually for not very much money - while the baddies, the ‘cowboys,’ cause havoc as politicians, financiers and lawyers - caring only about making money. The ugly truth is that such stereotypical casting has gone on for so many centuries that it is almost blindly accepted as a reality. Even our great bard, Shakespeare, when planning a new and better regime in Henry VI, Part II says ‘the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’. The infamous New Yorker has entire books of cartoons dedicated to poking fun at monstrous lawyers.


The real world is not a film or a play or a book or a magazine; it is a place where most people genuinely enter the legal profession in order to do good. And good they do. At the highest level, our judiciary ensures that our governments only act where they have the power to do so and in accordance with the law. On an everyday level, lawyers help us do business, buy our homes, sort out our divorces and be compensated for unjust losses.

But as the real world increasingly polarises those who have and those who have not so access to justice becomes harder. In his recent novel, ‘The Crash’ Robert Peston likened having a Magic Circle firm lawyer as a must have accessory for the richest; like a Ferrari, a yacht or a villa in the South of France. At the other end of the scale, legal aid exists to ensure those who have nothing at the very least have the right to representation. With funding for legal aid - as indeed with most funding for services - increasingly being cut, more and more people are finding that being able to access a lawyer is as unlikely for them as buying that Ferrari.

Enter the hero of the real world: Pro Bono. While it is nigh on impossible to quantify just how much Pro Bono work lawyers do, recent studies showed the top 40 London law firms clock up around half a million registered hours each year. That’s 500,000 hours those firms give free of charge - to individuals, to charities, to communities - to those who have no other means of getting the funding to pay for legal help.

While the media are all too quick to highlight the amounts of money top law firms make, they seem to have little interest in showcasing the amounts of work (and therefore money) they put into Pro Bono.

LawWorks is a charity which connects volunteer lawyers with those people and organisations who need but cannot afford legal advice and who are not eligible for legal aid.

We spoke to four lawyers heavily involved with LawWorks to hear about the good work lawyers all over England and Wales are doing day in and day out to help our society.

Alasdair Douglas is the Chair of the Board of Trustees of LawWorks. He was a partner at Travers Smith LLP and, when retired, became Chair of the City of London Law Society. Whilst Chair, Pro Bono was a big issue on Alasdair’s agenda. After six years, in 2016, his tenure as Chair reached an end and he was asked to consider applying to be Chair of LawWorks; a role he is perfectly suited to.

“Pro Bono is a large part of how law firms contribute to society. Whilst at the CLLS, I always tried to quantify it in order to inform the Government just how much City lawyers do but it's impossible. You can’t put a number on an hour of a solicitor's time - if they are charged out by their firm at say £500 an hour, is it right to say that if they volunteer four hours one evening that relates to £2000 of work? Or is it what a legal aid lawyer would charge? Also, if you have a full-time coordinator in your firm, does their time count?”

Alasdair says LawWorks supports around 330 clinics, about half of which are in universities and law schools. They need an infrastructure to help them. The rest are run by law firms - who also need help - most City lawyers know very little about, say, social welfare, so the training LawWorks gives can help with that.

“Our clinic network is a terrific achievement. We advise over 50,000 people each year. Around 30,000 of those do actually have a legal problem and for the rest it is a real weight off their mind that they don’t have.”

A project Alasdair is particularly proud of is the Not for Profits programme where LawWorks helps small charities, typically ones whose turnover is under £500,00/£600,000 per annum. The feeling is that the charities should not have to be spending what small funds they have on hiring lawyers but rather using that money for the reason the charity exists. LawWorks acts as a brokerage to find volunteer lawyers to do the work that the charities may need; work like negotiating a lease, hiring or firing staff etc.

LawWorks believes the work that qualified solicitors and students do on a Pro Bono basis should be recognised and so there are two awards ceremonies each year, one for each. It's a real celebration of the work that is done.

“It is humbling to hear of the time and effort people go to to bring justice to those who can’t afford it. Students can be slaving away trying to study for exams, possibly having to do a part-time job in order to make ends meet, yet they still choose to make time to help others. That appetite continues after they qualify and right up the ladder.”

Pro Bono is now so established that it is even a module on some university’s degree syllabus.

Obviously funding is an issue for LawWorks. It does get support from the Law Society but it also relies heavily on the generosity of donations from law firms who as well as giving their time give hard cash too.

LawWorks is currently in discussions with the global charity, A4ID (Advocates for International Development) on the possibility of merging resources. This would give a greater voice and allow for better efficiency through eliminating duplication plus it would add in the option of international Pro Bono work for member firms.

Rebecca Wilkinson is the CEO of LawWorks. Rebecca’s background has always been firmly in the volunteering sector. She spent her twenties working in mainstream volunteering mostly with young offenders; then did a Law Conversion and the Bar Course. She then split her time between working for a barrister and in the Free Representation Unit. The latter appealed more and, fortuitously, a role was advertised for Pro Bono Policy Officer at the Law Society which she applied for and got. She spent four years in that role working with law firms to understand the Pro Bono work they were doing and to see how the Law Society could support and help with that. She then moved from “the theory to the application” by taking on a role at LawWorks where she has been for five years.

“LawWorks was founded 25 years ago and that was before law firms had Pro Bono departments or full time roles. Looking through the archives, it seems the first five years were about how to turn an idea into a properly working and functioning reality. Then, 20 years ago, we became what the Europeans call a ‘clearing house’ where organisations or individuals could come to us with their legal problems and we would try and find lawyers to help them. We are in essence carrying out the triage mechanism. Our aim is to provide end to end help, to see a case through from beginning to end rather than just to give one off advice.”

Rebecca stresses the voluntary nature of Pro Bono work which, unfortunately, means only a fraction of those who need help get it.

“We are not aiming to bridge the enormous gap between legal aid and paid for advice - because we simply can’t; it is too huge. We can’t solve it, we can just demonstrate how it can be done. As an example, we run a very successful Domestic Abuse project in partnership with ten law firms; it is a great example of collaboration. But even so, we only have the resources to help 150 people a year - there are thousands who need help.”

LawWorks runs a project called Voices for Families which supports the families of children with life limiting illnesses - and this is one where Rebecca feels especially proud to be making a difference.

“Even if the difference is not necessarily a legal difference, we give the family space and time by taking away the burden of, say writing letters or dealing with local authorities on their behalf. For them, time together is the most precious gift and for us to be able to give them a little more of that is priceless.”

Sadly, Rebecca says this project is one of the hardest to fund. Generally, people don’t like funding the law.

“It feels more tangible to fund someone to, say, go on a holiday - and even though through the work we do we may have a similar outcome, it is not as obvious.”

Conversely, there is no lack of interest in providing help when it comes to lawyers and firms. Rebecca describes their appetite to help as “ferocious”.

No shortage, therefore, of people but Rebecca definitely wishes there was more money available.

“What would be particularly great would be unrestricted money as people tend to want to fund specific projects. But to have the ability to be flexible and dextrous and identify a need, scope it out and develop an appropriate project I think would be probably a way of helping those who may otherwise go unseen.”

Emma Rehal - Wilde is a Senior Pro Bono Associate at Baker McKenzie and a Senior Law Lecturer at London South Bank University. She began her legal career as a paralegal in a Pro Bono department at a time when Pro Bono jobs were as “rare as hens' teeth”. By the time she qualified in 2008, there were more opportunities and Emma decided to make Pro Bono her life’s work. Even as a law lecturer, there is a lot of overlap in the subjects she teaches and Pro Bono. One example is Consumer Protection, an area where there is no legal aid and most firms do not touch it so Pro Bono is fundamental. Emma believes it is important that students understand from early on just how important the role of Pro Bono is.

Emma both works for a member firm of LawWorks and is also on the board - so she sees it from both perspectives; as a service user on the one hand and also at board level.

“The work that LawWorks does to support firms who want to do secondary specialisation work is so important. It facilitates lawyers from different disciplines to venture into unknown areas with full supervision. This work provides experience, knowledge and confidence and mitigates the risk - and lawyers love it! To be given the opportunity to help people through what is possibly the worst period of their lives allows lawyers to do what comes naturally to them - to work on behalf of others.”

Emma says that students tend to differentiate between lawyers who work in City firms and those who provide aid to people who cannot afford it - and think never the twain shall meet. Showing that one does not negate the other - not just to her students but also to trainees, to associates and even partners - is something that is very important to Emma.

Emma believes that collaboration is a major reason why LawWorks achieves what it can.

“Collaboration is not something we generally see in our profession. Law firms are competitors. But when it comes to Pro Bono they come together and work as one. Sometimes you can have as many as 15 firms all harmoniously working on one project. If we can continue to work together like this to help those who breed it most, then Pro Bono can only snowball - the sky's the limit. Recently, at the PILnet (the Public Interest Lawyers’ Network) Global Forum the DARA initiative won an award. This is a programme that is facilitated by LawWorks and which brings together many law firms who provide help and advice to survivors of domestic violence. It is a great example of how effective and valuable collaboration can be.”

So much extraordinary work is being done by lawyers in our law firms all over the City of London. But it is not restricted to private practice. There is a burgeoning in-house volunteer group that is happening.

Deborah Smith is an Executive Director and Senior Counsel at Goldman Sachs. Her day job is working in digital assets. She is a founder and one of the steering group members of a group called the In-House Pro Bono Group which was set up about five years ago by six in-house lawyers all very keen to roll their sleeves up in the Pro Bono world. The challenges in-house lawyers face are very different when trying to set up or run a Pro Bono practice from those their law firm counterparts deal with. The Group has ballooned with over 90 different organisations now in the membership. The Group makes sure that any corporate, business or institution wanting to set up or expand its own Pro Bono practice is geared up with all the necessary tools, help and information it needs.

“In the US, as a law firm you must do Pro Bono; you cannot renew your New York Bar Membership if you do not do Pro Bono. In the UK in private practice it’s established; it's a part of the culture. But in-house is the least developed. The Group exists to help you get there, to set up and run a successful practice. The appetite is there; people just don’t know how to go about it.  They have busy day jobs and, unlike in private practice where there is typically a dedicated Pro Bono coordinator whose full-time work is to manage the programme, in-house lawyers have to do everything themselves. Which is how the Group can help.”

Aside from the In-House Pro Bono Group. Deborah co-chairs Goldman’s own highly active Pro Bono committee.

What sort of Pro Bono work is done at Goldman Sachs?

“We have had a Pro Bono programme for over 20 years; our Committee currently has 13 members who are all involved in sourcing and running volunteering opportunities. We have expanded our Committee beyond the legal division to also include a representative from Compliance as well as from Engineering so we can ensure our offering reaches as many as possible and to look at how we can use technology to democratise the delivery of Pro Bono.”

The Committee offers around ten different volunteering opportunities for employees each year. They range from an ongoing legal advice clinic, Connect, which offers help to homeless youths in London, run in conjunction with Herbert Smith LLP to the Innocence Project with Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP which looks at cases with potential miscarriage of justice to see if there are grounds for appeal.  Goldman also currently runs a suite of opportunities in the refugee / asylum space in partnership with DLA Piper.

The Committee is also active in the social mobility space, for example the Amani project in partnership with Hogan Lovells LLP. This ground-breaking project was created in partnership with Amani Simpson, a victim of knife violence. Amani was stabbed seven times in 2011 and has dedicated his life to steering young people away from violence.  The programme brings together cohorts of students and offers workshops, mentoring and networking opportunities, with the intention of equipping these students with the soft skills and support needed to begin a career and find meaningful long-term employment. 

Deborah is also very much involved with LawWorks; Goldman is a member and Deborah is a trustee. She finds it hugely rewarding to “roll up sleeves and be part of the governance”.

Deborah is hugely supportive of LawWorks;

“They do such great work and they are one of the key avenues that in-house lawyers looking to build a Pro Bono practice can easily turn to and plug into any of the projects. It allows in-house teams to break down that barrier of not knowing how or where to start.”

Deborah puts so much time and passion into her Pro Bono work and gets as much back from it.

“Like most lawyers in the City, I did not go into Law thinking or wanting to become a Financial Services lawyer. I stumbled into that. Pro Bono gives me the avenue to give back, to do what I always dreamed of doing when I chose to study Law - and the more I do, the more passionate I become about it and the more I want to do. It gives me a sense of purpose. It makes me feel good. It energises me.”

The Law should exist as a force for good. Even though a lot of people think its practitioners are more self-serving than society serving, we only have to look at how much law students, solicitors, barristers and law firms all contribute to make sure those who cannot afford it do have access to justice. We need to understand and appreciate that there is a genuine generosity of time, experience and money throughout our profession. New bards of our time should take note and when, one day, King Charles III is written, hopefully lawyers will be rightfully represented as the good guys.