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Pro bono legal services and the impact of the Victorian legal services panel arrangements

A pro bono panel was held in Melbourne at Russell Kennedy Lawyers on Tuesday with guest speaker the Hon. Martin Pakula, Attorney General of Victoria.

Representatives from law firms, the Victorian Bar and not-for-profit and government in-house legal teams were on hand for the lunchtime session in Melbourne.

The event was covered in Lawyers Weekly, you can read more here.

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The panellists discussed pro bono legal services and the impact of the legal services panel arrangements.  The session provided a unique opportunity to hear from The Hon. Martin Pakula regarding the role of legal services panel arrangements in the delivery and growth of pro bono legal services and the development of pro bono culture.

The audience was addressed by John Corker, CEO of the Australian Pro Bono Centre, Victor Harcourt, Principal at Russell Kennedy Lawyers and Emma Dunlevie, Pro Bono Manager at Russell Kennedy.

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Mr Pakula opened by saying that the legal profession has always supported the need to provide access to justice for those sections of our community who are disadvantaged in some way. He also pointed to the Victorian Government model as helping to drive an even greater pro bono commitment from law firms.

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The Victorian model mandates a minimum level of pro bono work as a condition of being on the State Government Legal Services Panel. This is measured as a percentage of the total amount of fees generated through work received from the Government.

Mr Pakula noted that the most recent panel configuration (in 2015) doubled the minimum commitment from 5% to 10%, but the average across all panel firms was currently much higher at 20%.
The Department of Justice recently released the Access to Justice Review which acknowledged the Victorian approach as being important in positioning Victoria as the strongest performing pro bono jurisdiction in Australia today.

That same report made a number of recommendations for refining the model, and Mr Pakula indicated the Victorian Government is currently considering all recommendations and would provide a formal response in 2017.

John Corker contrasted the Victorian approach with that taken by Commonwealth Government with its similar legal services panellists. The Commonwealth scheme is less prescriptive and places greater onus on the buyers of legal services to consider firm performance as part of their purchasing decision. It also measures pro bono performance in terms of lawyer hours committed, rather than in terms of fee equivalent, which Mr Corker believes is a “truer” performance measure.

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Mr Corker saw opportunities for more alignment across States and improved reporting efficiencies for firms under a single, national model that looked more like the Commonwealth model based on the National Pro Bono Aspirational Target.

“Whichever way you look at it, there is no doubt that the profession is making progress. There are now 12,000 lawyers in Australia operating under the aspirational target of 35 hours per lawyer, per annum. And for the first time, this year that national target was reached. Another way to look at it is that there is now the equivalent of 223 lawyers in private law firms in Australia doing nothing but pro bono work all year,” John Corker said.

Emma Dunlevie spoke about some of the structural elements of Russell Kennedy’s Pro Bono Practice and Russell Kennedy’s community partnerships which make the practice so successful.

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Underpinning Russell Kennedy’s approach is a formal structure – pro bono is a distinct practice area for the firm. It has dedicated managers, lawyers and a representative committee. Pro bono files are treated for all purposes in the same way as billable files.

Ms Dunlevie commented on the importance of not confusing pro bono work with other corporate social responsibility initiatives in the firm. Pro bono is a critical element in a lawyer’s professional identity and helps to make the rule of law a reality.  It is an ethic of service to the legal system and the public good, and “marks lawyers as professionals rather than just practitioners or business people,” Ms Dunlevie said.

Ms Dunlevie also spoke about the importance of a strong pro bono culture for the overall health of a firm and its lawyers. The psychological and morale-boosting benefits for practitioners are real, as well as providing the opportunity for lawyers to expand their skills by working in new and often innovative areas.

Russell Kennedy Principal Victor Harcourt asked the panel to differentiate between what effective and ineffective firms are doing in their pro bono programs.

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The general consensus was, apart from providing formal management structures and resources, those firms with a strong pro bono culture develop a program on sustainable building blocks of longstanding, deep relationships with a handful of key partners and clients.

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They also bring proactivity to their programs, by actively identifying areas of unmet legal need and developing programs to address those needs in consultation with the broader community of Community Legal Centres and Legal Aid organisations who operate in those areas.

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