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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Law firms 'step up' pro bono support amid international refugee crisis

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Law firms 'step up' pro bono support amid international refugee crisis

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China's lawyers clock more hours than those in England and Wales, pro bono index finds

Law firms from around the world are responding to the international refugee crisis by increasing their pro bono support on a global scale, according to new research released today.

The TrustLaw Index of Pro Bono from the Thomson Reuters Foundation reports that 'immigration, refugees, and asylum' was selected as a key focus area for pro bono work by 41 per cent of firms - a substantial increase on the last two years of results (24 per cent and 28 per cent respectively).

'The ongoing refugee crisis poses unprecedented challenges for Europe and the rest of the world,' said Monique Villa, the CEO of Thomson Reuters Foundation and founder of TrustLaw.

'We are seeing a worrying increase in the number of migrants illegally detained, including unaccompanied children. Lawyers are stepping up to provide life-changing support, and this is undoubtedly a beautiful story of solidarity in action.'

Nick Glicher, a legal director at TrustLaw, explained that the humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated by complex legal frameworks that make it difficult for refugees to reunite with family members, find work, or access basic services.

'Pro bono lawyers have stepped in to provide vital support,' he said, 'from advising refugees and asylum seekers on the ground in Greece and Thailand, to supporting organisations calling for stronger laws and policies that protect refugees and defend their rights.'

Compiled with data from over 130 firms, representing 64,500 lawyers in 75 countries, the index provides a snapshot of key national, regional, and global trends shaping pro bono programmes.

Among the general trends, the index found that 2.5 million hours of pro bono were completed globally, with lawyers dedicating a 39-hour working week on average each year. Some 27,200 lawyers performed ten or more hours of pro bono last year.

Small firms performed the highest number of pro bono hours, averaging almost 42 hours per lawyer each year, compared to their larger counterparts, which reported 35 hours. Lawyers at medium-sized firms performed an average of 28 hours over the last 12 months.

The vast majority of firms (88 per cent) offered pro bono support to registered charities and non-profits, while 74 per cent provided assistance to social enterprises, and 73 per cent to individuals.

The index also highlighted that the UK government's legal aid cuts have had a significant impact on the demand for free legal support, particularly from individuals struggling with family law issues.

An analysis of firms with offices in England and Wales showed a decrease in pro bono engagement by lawyers. Fee earners performed an average of just under 21.6 hours each in the past year, a moderate decrease from the 22.5 hours reported in 2015.

However, the percentage of fee earners completing ten or more hours last year dropped markedly, from around 36 per cent reported in the 2015 index to 27 per cent this year.

Nevertheless, partner engagement remains strong with a small but consistent annual growth. UK-based partners completed an average of 12 hours over the past year, a decrease from the 2015 and 2014 indexes. The percentage of partners who spent any time on pro bono work did, however, increase from 38 per cent to 40 per cent.

In the UK, Weil, Gotshal & Manges (56.77), Dechert (56.63), and Arnold & Porter (55.91) have the highest average hours per fee earner recorded. Meanwhile, Magic Circle firms Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters recorded 31.12 and 15.47 respectively.

However, the hours from UK firms still fall below the average recorded by their US counterparts, with Arnold & Porter (117.94), Morrison and Foerster (104.67), and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom (99.35) leading the pack.

UK offices with the lowest average hours per fee earner included Farrer & Co (1.92), Clyde & Co (2.51), and Gowling WLG (4.27).

Japan's Atsumi & Sakai completed zero pro bono hours at its UK, US, Australia, Vietnam, and China offices, according to the figures. Lawyers at its home office recorded 2.95 hours last year on average, but none had accumulated over ten hours.

The data also shows that pro bono is spreading beyond the realm of traditional jurisdictions, with Asia seeing an unprecedented increase of 40 per cent year-on-year in hours since 2014.

In particular, lawyers based in the China offices of some of the world's leading firms now clock an average of 37 pro bono hours annually - similar to practitioners in Australia, and above those recorded in England and Wales.

With staggering growth of over 211 per cent since the TrustLaw Index began in 2014, China's increase in pro bono hours was described as 'remarkable' by Villa.

'NGOs in China face many challenges and this pro bono support is instrumental in helping them navigate increasingly complex legal frameworks,' she said. 'Only ten years ago, pro bono in China was a niche practice, but today the country has overtaken the amount of hours in England and other countries with solid pro bono traditions. China is definitely the country to watch.'

'It is staggering to think about the social impact a week of pro bono per lawyer, per year represents,' added Glicher. 'From advising refugees and representing the most vulnerable, to challenging oppressive laws and supporting non-profits or social enterprises, lawyers make a remarkable contribution to society that should be applauded.'

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk @JvdLD

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