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Pro Bono - Aspirational, no longer...

For those of you who aren't across the Latin - legalese, 'pro bono' is the abbreviated form of 'pro bono publico.' Translation - For the public good.

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Beyond compliance
29 November 2023
Bobbi Campbell - Synergy Law Partner
4 minutes

For those of you who aren't across the Latin - legalese, 'pro bono' is the abbreviated form of 'pro bono publico.' Translation - For the public good.

Lawyers perform 'pro bono' work on a voluntary basis for the good of the broader community and to help our court system operate, especially where litigants cannot afford representation. Since 2007, Australian jurisdictions have adopted a National Pro Bono Target, where signatory (private) law firms agree to an aspirational target of 35 hours. For in-house (corporate) lawyers, it's 20 hours. In the case of firms participating in the Commonwealth Government's Legal Services Panel (the Panel), they're obliged to 'sign on' to the Australian Pro Bono Centre's target, i.e. commit to 'giving back' to the community, with all lawyers (individually) agreeing to provide 35 hours of free legal services.

Under the current Panel arrangement, pro bono targets are aspirational. However, the recently published Whole-of-Government Legal Services re-tender not only makes the pro bono commitment mandatory, but meeting the targets is a condition of remaining on the Panel. That change followed on the heels of a letter penned by the Attorney-General, The Hon. Mark Dreyfuss, KC MP in mid-July 2023, outlining that the Attorney-General's Department (AGD) would start publishing a list of Panel firms that failed to meet the pro bono targets. At the end of October this year, the AGD published the FY22 Legal Expenditure Report. Soon after, media outlets began dissecting the data and naming the firms that hadn't met the targets - and those that had exceeded them.

Our firm, Synergy Law was on neither list, despite having provided legal services via the Panel. Why and how, you ask? Our firm is (officially) a newcomer to the Commonwealth legal services market, having been established less than two years ago. So how did we provide Panel services, you're wondering? Through a pass-through or subcontracting relationship with another Panel firm. But don't let the 'newbie' label fool you - our lawyers have spent decades working for and with Commonwealth organisations. And that's not to mention having a wealth of experience with State and Territory Governments, as well as in the corporate sphere and with other private law firms. The same applies to our parent firm, Synergy Group, which has been a trusted advisory to the Commonwealth for more than two decades.

Had Synergy Law been on the current Panel, we would have been recoded as exceeding the pro bono target per lawyer (we did 45 hours per lawyer to be specific). For the record, that's not a 'bragging point.' Considering the Panel's billion-plus-dollar price tag over five years, it should be 'table stakes' and an opportunity to give back to the community. In my opinion, the commitment to pro bono work should not be inspirational, not should it require name-and-shame lists, much less media and Parliamentary censure. Pro Bono work should be an integral part of firms' ethos and mission - and at the heart of their reason-for-being.

I can tell you that at Synergy Group - and at Synergy Law, giving back to the ACT community, the Commonwealth and all Australians really is art the heart of what we do. That applies to Synergy Group's commitment to ACT and national charities, supporting local businesses and their staff in Canberra, as well as our offices in other capital cities. It is also integral to our commitment in providing pro bono legal services to those in need. That same approach animates how Synergites - our staff, engage with our Commonwealth clients - our core client base. and a key part of 'what we do' is that with every engagement, Synergites develop knowledge transfer protocols and find ways to make ourselves redundant. Redundant? Yes, that's right - redundant, surplus to needs and no longer required. Why? The answer is simple. At Synergy Group and Synergy Law, a great engagement is one where - after it's done, our clients don't need us anymore.

Sadly, the same can't be said of pro bono services. As lawyers - and for all thinking people, we can see very clearly that there will always be a need for 'pro bono publico' services - because the public always deserved better. And nowhere is that need more clear than with the vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society. That was made abundantly clear in the Attorney-General's letter - and should be part of all law firms' playbooks and their reason-for-being

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