Chloe Birchall, a trainee solicitor at BT, was involved in setting up its pro bono programme. She looks at the benefits of an in-house pro bono programme, and offers some tips for anyone thinking of setting one up.

Pro bono initiatives are about doing good. Organisations are generally very open to volunteering, and leadership teams are likely to be delighted with proposals for a pro bono programme. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy! It’s all about making sure plans are well thought-through, and any potential challenges are addressed.

Over the past few years, BT has built up an innovative pro bono programme focusing on offering dedicated support to our charity partners: Cancer Research UK, Family Action and, most recently, The Brooke. We work with their legal teams as our dedicated clients, so we have a direct relationship with them. Below, I look at some of the benefits of pro bono, and offer some tips for setting up a successful programme.

The benefits

The overarching incentive for most people is to help people who need legal advice but struggle to get the necessary support. For me, personally, pro bono is about remembering how extremely fortunate I am to work in the legal profession and play a part in ensuring the legal system is available for everyone, not just those who can afford it. However, there are lots of other reasons to get involved.

From a personal reward perspective, our pro bono work contributes strongly to our sense of making a difference. It gives us the chance to use our skills for the greater good. We see at first hand the money and resources our charity partners save.

From a broader perspective, pro bono allows us to develop our skills and professional networks. Pro bono is a unique opportunity to develop key skills such as account / stakeholder management. As well as improving core legal skills, it helps enhance leadership skills, confidence, and can offer a welcome change to the daily routine.

Furthermore, group initiatives such as pro bono give us a chance to work together with our colleagues to build something collectively, with everyone contributing corresponding to their seniority and experience. We get exposure to a wider world, and to work with people who are committed to helping others.

Making the business case

As with any business decision, engagement from the top is key to success. Delivering a strong business case to the leadership team is a crucial initial step in setting up a successful pro bono committee, and a successful programme. Below are some persuasive considerations that can be built into a pro bono business proposal.

  • Consider linking in with your organisation’s wider corporate social responsibility goals. From BT’s point of view, we are part of its wider volunteering effort. We publicise our volunteering in our annual reports and on our websites, and our pro bono work is part of that. BT Legal wants to contribute to BT’s wider goals, and to be seen within the business as contributing. Pro bono is a great way of doing that.
  • Pro bono is good for the helper as well as the helped. Pro bono exposes younger lawyers to a range of experiences and allows them to be involved and engaged, and to directly contribute to the success of the initiative. People who feel they are making a difference are happier people and better employees. The programme creates an emotional commitment and helps bind the team together.

Importantly, you may not need a budget to run a pro bono programme. However, individuals will need to invest their time. It is important for the business and managers to understand and support that.

Barriers and challenges

A lot of hard work goes into setting up and running a pro bono programme. Finding a dedicated group of people to set up and run the core pro bono committee, and drum up engagement throughout the business, is fundamental. And it’s also important to adopt a practical and risk-aware approach to setting up a committee.

Making sure you have appropriate insurance in place is key. We were lucky in that we found out that our existing insurance arrangements covered our pro bono work. Still, to ensure we are compliant with our insurance policy and the SRA’s rules in respect of pro bono work for in-house lawyers, we specifically exclude the reserved matters in our retainer letters. We cannot, for example, give advice in contemplation of litigation. Additionally, we do not give advice on charity law, because we don’t have skills in that area. You can find out more in-house pro bono legal requirements in the Law Society’s practice note

In-house departments may lack the support infrastructure and funds which many law firms enjoy. One option to combat this is to work with law firms or wider pro bono programmes, which can also help with insurance cover. At BT, we have a larger legal team, and were keen to use that to set up a dedicated programme. For us, that really contributes to the feeling of making a difference, and to forming direct or longer relationships with the recipients of the pro bono work. 

Law Society’s Pro Bono Charter

BT is one of the founder signatories of the Law Society’s Pro Bono Charter. We are enthusiastic about the Charter, because it actively helps us share experiences and best practice, and creates a strong and public statement of commitment. If you have a pro bono programme already, or are thinking of setting one up, signing up to the Charter can be a great way to further not just your own programme, but also the wider pro bono effort in the UK.