The legal profession is rarely lauded by outside circles for its commitment to engaging in pro bono work. Through a purely voluntary endeavour that goes unregulated, most firms levy targets on staff to dedicate a minimum number of hours every year to provide legal advice or representation for public interest causes. Yet ask most people on the street and “charity” wouldn’t come close to the list of descriptive phrases used for lawyers.

You would wonder what the promotional benefits are. Very often in newsrooms, the idea of publishing the accolades of law firm pro bono work is met with an eye roll. Admittedly, the inclusion of corporate social responsibility awards has become a common feature of annual ceremonies, but it’s generally a hard slog convincing media hacks to acknowledge a firm’s efforts in giving back to the community.

From their perspective, it doesn’t inspire scandal-clad headlines or present as click bait to editors hungry for traffic. The message can also get lost in translation – perhaps seen as an opportunistic play by firms to convey a compassionate side that just doesn’t exist in sharp-elbowed City cultures.

Why would you want to?

Advocates of the pro bono agenda shouldn’t be disheartened by such cynicism, however. Whether or not your work gets recognised by media sources, there is a much wider target audience influenced by social contributions, and subsequently, any content highlighting the firm’s achievements should be displayed prominently – and proudly – across its digital and print platforms.

There are certainly tweaks law firms could make when broaching publicity of the subject to make the task less arduous, perhaps through enhanced coordination with clients on targeted public interest causes (potentially leading to bigger budgets!).

Or even liaising with media connections and asking them to get involved; inviting them to your events and fundraisers at least brings them into a conversation about the issues at stake and could enhance the context of their writing for public interest features. Better, more focused coordination always generates better rewards.

Going back to the start

It’s important to remind ourselves of the substantive arguments behind pro bono work in the first place – not least because it makes for a more convincing message to cynical journalists.

Enhancing your reputation: having pro bono commitments as part of the firm’s core ethos greatly enhances your reputation to clients, especially today’s generation of socially conscious corporates increasing their efforts towards ethical governance. It further inspires law graduates who, more than ever, are eager to achieve a work/life balance, and broaden their professional capabilities, making the firm an attractive destination for the most talented lawyers.

Work/life balance: placing a heavy emphasis on the firm’s commitment to pro bono provides a highly valuable branding exercise to retain existing staff and court the interest of potential recruits. Considering the lengthy, complex work lawyers engage in, from long-haul M&A negotiations to years of high-value, large-scale commercial disputes, having an outside interest serves as a great booster to their professional legal skills and, more pervasively, their personal strengths from which the firm will benefit in the long run.

These are experiences that make employees good at building relationships with people. It will provide them with the experience of real face-to-face engagement, whether through interviewing, researching, or a simple consultation. This can expose lawyers to different social or cultural norms, and maybe even provide more meaningful perspective on their approach to client engagement later on.

Giving back: more fundamentally, the cost of skilled legal services are very high and beyond the reach of many – the UK government’s severe cutbacks to legal aid over the last decade being one high-profile example. Giving back to the community in this way presents a low-cost, high-value investment firms can make that will ultimately enhance their public image.

If you agree with us on the issue, or would like advice on publicising your pro bono activity, get in touch.

London Legal Walk

One popular and much-valued way that firms can participate in pro bono is the London Legal Walk on Monday 17 June 2019. This takes place once a year during the summer and raises money for free legal advice charities in London and the south east. Last year, 13,000 people took part and raised a record-breaking £830,000.

The event provides plenty of good opportunities for publicity, with the London Legal Support Trust and the Law Society promoting and supporting the walkers via their websites and well-followed social media channels. Make sure you sign up!