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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Pro bono and the charitable ethic: for whose good?

In 1957, Albert Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, with a prize of $42,000. He deposited the cheque in a bank in Stockholm and forgot about it until some months later, when he was asked by the bank what he wanted them to do with the funds.

Camus’ attitude to prizes and honours forms an interesting contrast with the ethos of lawyers’ charitable work. For example, in November 2009 it was reported that more than 50 “pro bono heroes” attended a Parliamentary reception hosted by the Attorney-General. She is reported to have commented that it was not in the nature of lawyers who acted pro bono to seek recognition or praise for their efforts. The reception was a way of celebrating the work of pro bono heroes. The glaring contradictions of this statement were not recognised.

Richard Abel, in English Lawyers between Market and State, makes the following comments on pro bono services:

  • They allow elite lawyers conspicuously to enact independence on behalf of vulnerable clients confronting powerful adversaries (frequently the state) thereby mystifying those lawyers’ profound dependence on a few large clients (many of which oppress and exploit the very same clients).

  • Pro bono services contain their own contradictions.

  • The recession was not in general a climate in which an extension of pro bono work was sought.

  • There is a fundamental contradiction between the Law Society’s exhortation that solicitors must run their practices on strict business lines and its message that they have surplus time, resources and cash to work for nothing to prop up under-funded organisations.

  • Claire Dyer wrote in the Guardian, June 3, 2003, that the reasons for pro bono work were “a complex interaction between professional idealism, political pressure and commercialism”.

Only lawyers?

  • Is the legal profession apparently the only group of professionals which feels it necessary, when it gives fellow human beings a helping hand without demanding money in return, to organise such actions into an institution, to give such actions a Latin tag, to bask in the assumption of public admiration, to accept plaudits at glittering social events and to reap commercial benefits from an improved public image?

  • Do any other professions have pro bono schemes? Are there pro bono plumbers or motor mechanics? Bookmakers? Doctors don’t do pro bono work because their work is funded by the state and runs parallel to a private system.

  • Do lawyers work for free because they are the only group of professionals with a social conscience?

  • If other groups of professionals do free work on a large scale, which is questionable, why is this so little publicised in comparison with lawyers’ pro bono schemes?

  • How do lawyers react to the argument that they make so much money that they can easily afford to do some work for free?

  • Another profession which is well-known for its readiness to do unpaid work is teaching. Many primary and secondary school teachers regularly take on unpaid professional activities beyond the scope of their contracts of employment. For example, a typical conscientious inner-city comprehensive schoolteacher may habitually spend about ten hours a week on unpaid out of school activities, including drama, adventure trips, fundraising activities, pastoral and advisory work. This work is not given a Latin label, receives little public recognition, will not lead to an award, and is not organised by a central body. There are no ceremonies for schoolteacher “pro bono heroes”.

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