Now that The Salvation Army are opening a law firm in Australia, it seemed an obvious step for other Charities to buy into or create law firms in the UK and this could even further economically squeeze existing firms.
If all UK firms offered a set number of hours pro-bono across the board, and not simply as a marketing issue for selected firms, then this would open up legal services to the poor and needy wherever they are located.
What's more, the internet has flooded the marketplace with free legal information. The currency of that free information is attention. Time (or attention) spent on a website boosts its page rankings and gives it credibility. Even amateur legal websites are gaining credibility. Now the professionals and amateurs are suddenly in the same legal information marketplace. And there are a lot more amateurs than professionals.
This leaves a lot of people with a lot of information, but with no real knowledge of how to apply it…and for that reason they need, nay MUST, speak to a solicitor.
To continue with the internet concept for a second, websites that create trust, get "traffic". In other words the reputation of the site brings it business. Lawyers already have (or should have) trust and reputation, but they don't get "traffic" because the perception is that they are too expensive.
If everyone feels that they can walk into any law firm to make sense of their free information, that will naturally lead to more paid business and in turn remove or reduce the perception that lawyers are "unapproachable and expensive".
But why do pro-bono work?
Adam Smith said that "Enlightened self-interest is the most powerful force in humanity".
Nowadays, in a world where all our subsistence needs are met, we find ourselves with spare cycles of what sociologists call "cognitive surplus" or energy and knowledge that are not fully tapped by our jobs. At the same time we have emotional and intellectual needs that are not fully satisfied at work either.
In short, doing things we like without pay often makes us happier than the work we do for a salary. You still have to eat, but there is more to life than that. The opportunity to contribute in a way that is both creative and appreciated is exactly the sort of fulfilment that is privileged above all other aspirations and many jobs do not provide that.
Many lawyers say that they already do plenty pro-bono work. They must be sole practitioners or partners because according to The Ministry of Justice Feb 2008 report into the extent and value of pro-bono work, employed lawyers are driven by financial targets and constraints and not allowed in many cases to do pro-bono work without answering to someone above. This is insulting to intelligent, professional people who have to ask for permission to do something good. The compulsory element is needed to level the playing field for all the lawyers.
If a lawyer doesn't want to do it, then there should be some mechanism to help with unmet legal need or as Professor Donald Nicolson suggested "Those who do not want to provide their service free, should make a pro rata contribution to a central access to justice fund and these can be used to support those who do, such as law clinics, the Faculty's Free Legal Services Unit and LawWorks, which is about to be launched in Scotland to co-ordinate and foster pro bono amongst solicitors and law students ".
In conclusion, there is an unmet legal need as far as the poor and needy are concerned. The up-coming changes in the legal sector and the threats to our business provide an ideal opportunity for the profession to be innovative . The Ministry of Justice report points to a long history pro-bono work. But from the public's perception, lawyers don't do anything for free.
In that same report 58% of legal executives would like to help when the mechanism allows. At present the mechanism does not allow it, so let's change it.
(NB This article was originally aimed at the Scottish Legal Profession, so if the links refer to English law, consider them aimed at the Laws of Scotland as well