What is pro bono? Is it the same as corporate social responsibility?
Pro bono means "for the public good", and law firms use the term to refer to the free legal advice they give to people who would not otherwise have access to a lawyer.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a broader term, which usually includes pro bono and means how an organisation looks after its employees and other parties it chooses to work with; how it works in the community; and its impact on the environment.
What pro bono and CSR projects are staff in the London office involved in?
We've worked with London law centres for over 20 years. We've always given one-on-one assistance at their surgeries, but now we're also giving them strategic advice because of the effect legal aid funding cuts are having on them.
Our lawyers in London do a lot of work through development organisations such as Advocates for International Development. For example, we recently helped a small NGO which campaigns to minimise the severe difficulties faced by people accused of witchcraft in Africa and Asia, who can be ostracised by their communities.
We've also been working with the British Red Cross to develop an education resource for schools, covering international humanitarian law and why it's so important.
Do you have global pro bono and CSR projects?
Yes, we do. A good example is our ongoing work with the Red Cross. Last year, offices across our network analysed the law in a number of Asian jurisdictions to identify legislation which could be used to get relief into countries affected by disasters. This led to ongoing work to help the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to develop a Model Law which could be applied in countries with no or limited legislation in this legally complex area.
What pro bono and CSR projects do Allen & Overy trainees tend get involved in?
Their involvement with pro bono work starts when they're at law school. Last autumn, we divided our LPC students into teams and allocated each one a real-life problem submitted by one of the charities that we work with. They then had 24 hours to come up with practical and implementable solutions. Some of the students got so interested in their charity that they maintained links with them, and ended up contributing significantly to their work.
Our human rights projects are popular with our trainees once they start working here, particularly our involvement with human rights charity Liberty. We send trainee secondees there and many more participate in our letter-writing programme, answering queries on human rights sent to Liberty. They can do this from their desk at any time - we try to find trainees pro bono work that they can balance with their other work commitments.
Trainees could also get involved with our microfinance group, help a schoolchild develop their reading skills, or cook breakfasts at a homeless shelter.
How does getting involved in pro bono and CSR work help Allen & Overy trainees develop professionally?
Pro bono and CSR work gives them the opportunity to have greater responsibility than they have in their day-to-day role - if they're working on a £100 million deal, they won't be in charge of it, but they may be able to run a small pro bono matter themselves. They also get to practice important skills such as getting key information from an interview, expressing legal issues in non-technical language, and writing succinctly. Some of our pro bono projects, such as our work advising on the first social impact bond, break new legal ground, giving trainees experience of approaching new and complex areas of law. Pro bono and CSR work can also help trainees get to know our clients, as we often do joint projects with them.
Do you like to recruit students who have experience of volunteering work?
Yes - these students have more rounded personalities and have mixed with people from different walks of life, which is valuable to us because at Allen & Overy they'll need to be able to work with a wide variety of different people.
We also like to see that students have simultaneously taken part in volunteering activities and excelled academically because it shows they are organised, determined and committed to what they undertake.
What pro bono and CSR activities would you recommend that students interested in applying for a training contract at Allen & Overy get involved in?
I don't want to be too directional on particular activities - students will achieve the most if they follow their own passions.
It's more important that they can describe how their volunteering experiences are relevant to working in a law firm. Law centre work will give them experience of interviewing clients and drafting legal documents. If they set up their own project, they can say they've shown initiative, creativity and teamworking abilities. If candidates commit to a project for a significant period of time, they're determined and responsible. Finally, students also demonstrate ethical commitment through involvement in such activities.
What's coming up for pro bono and CSR work at Allen & Overy?
Our annual Smart Start event is approaching. We choose 100 A-level students from schools in the most deprived boroughs in London and bring them into our offices for a week. 250 volunteers from the firm help them with developing soft skills such as networking, presentation and teamwork, and we also offer the students ongoing mentoring.
On the international side, we are involved in a fantastic project in Rwanda where we are working with judges and lawyers, both in private practice and government, to support the country's economic growth strategy. Our work focuses on Rwanda's transition from a civil to a common law system. We're also assisting government lawyers with designing frameworks for foreign investment for Rwanda and working with the United Nations on the issue. Over £1 million worth of our lawyers' time will be committed to the project.