The law is a subject that evokes a number of stereotypical images. Some images are driven by television and film, others by the print journalists…some follow our own experiences and others again are drawn from novels with dramatic plots and improbable heroes.

The picture painted by the stereotypes is not always positive; indeed more often than not it is very negative.

The truth, in most cases, is more mundane but still worth noting.

  • Lawyers today are the gatekeepers to our civil and criminal justice systems.
  • Lawyers today play a pivotal role at the heart of our major corporations.
  • Lawyers today are among the great creative problem solvers in all walks of life for every type of personal or commercial conundrum that requires an imaginative and lawful solution.
  • Lawyers today continue to work in a profession that demands the highest standards of ethical conduct, of integrity and of respect for the rights of the individual.

On this basis, undertaking pro bono work should not be the preserve of a few but the duty of us all.

For those who work in law firms there is often a relatively straightforward path to follow in order to make a contribution to pro bono work. It does not mean that it is easy to do but if the will is there opportunities will be found.

However, for in-house lawyers, constrained by rules of conduct and issues of insurance, what can you do?

In-house lawyers advise their business don’t they? How can they advise a third party? What happens if something goes wrong? How can you get indemnity cover? – it all seems very complicated.

There are now tremendously significant developments that can help all in-house lawyers break into pro bono work:

  • Practice Rule 4 (that says employed lawyers can only act for their employer and not for third parties) can now be waived by the Law Society and will be waived by the Law Society for up to three years for pro bono work that in-house lawyers are competent to undertake provided indemnity insurance is in place.
  • The Solicitors Pro Bono Group (SPBG) now has arrangements in place to provide indemnity insurance for in-house solicitors involved in projects that SPBG has approved. The policy, effective from January 2002, is in respect of schemes arranged through the SPBG involving in-house lawyers and will provide cover at no cost to the in-house lawyers involved.
  • Through its LawWorks in the Community programme, the SPBG can put in-house lawyers in touch with community groups in need of specific commercial advice, then help in-house lawyers apply to the Law Society for the Rule 4 waiver, and provide indemnity insurance cover.

Whether it is by reviewing a lease, offering employment advice, reviewing the terms of a computer contract, interpreting company legislation or looking at corporate governance issues, SPBG can match in-house skills and expertise with groups and charities in real need who would otherwise be denied the advice that makes such a positive difference.

There is, of course, a very good argument that points out that there are many thousands of lawyers who work in publicly remunerated legal aid work. It says that a few city lawyers with a conscience should not be dictating terms to the those who provide a wonderful service twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year.

The argument is that pro bono work actually detracts from the work of hard pressed legal aid lawyers who need our support just as much to defend the legal aid system.

It is a good argument, but it is also superficial.

What of the thousands of small community groups that do not qualify for legal aid but that are serving the real needs of local people? What of the individuals who are too frightened to step through the door of a solicitor’s office but who might be persuaded to visit a community law centre? What of the international issues where citizens in foreign jurisdictions lack for basic human rights? What of the growing underclass of people in this country who through infirmity, disability, social exclusion or race do not even know where to begin their search for justice?

Legal aid lawyers do a brilliant job. They deserve our support and respect. But they do not provide a comprehensive service that reaches out to all.

Pro bono is not and never should be a substitute for publicly funded work. But pro bono is most definitely not for the few, it is for all those who believe in our system of justice, who are trained to make the system operate and who have the capacity to help make the system work for those who most need it to work for them.

For the first time, the in-house legal community as a whole has the opportunity to deliver real value in the pro bono arena.

This is not “do-gooding”, it is not taking legal aid work away from legal aid lawyers, and it is not propping up a flawed political agenda. It is about a profession with unique skills and with a unique opportunity to use those skills, making a significant difference to the lives of people who need our help.

Please contact the SPBG for details and be a lawyer who makes a difference.