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How to begin doing good in a law firm: 11 Indian firms ponder ‘long overdue’ pro bono start with new UK tech NGO

The head of the i-Probono Ashoka Delhi roundtable
The head of the i-Probono Ashoka Delhi roundtable

Eleven law firms, including six of India’s largest, Ashoka and the UK’s former attorney general Lord Peter Goldsmith QC have discussed how to develop a pro bono culture in Indian law firms as i-Probono, a UK not-for-profit and online portal seeking to connect lawyers to social sector projects, will launch in India to encourage law firms to do that which is “long overdue”.

At the 29 July event in Delhi 11 Indian law firms, Goldsmith, and co-organisers i-Probono and social entrepreneur supporting organisation Ashoka discussed for two hours the challenges and ambitions of implementing pro bono programmes.

i-Probono was started two years ago in the UK, is backed by several law firms and connects non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that require legal support on projects, which can then be accepted online by law firms.

i-Probono executive director Shireen Irani, who founded the organisation with the support of her firm Field Fisher Waterhouse where she was a solicitor, says that India was always on the horizon when setting up the organisation, partly as her parents are from Mumbai and she has worked and studied in the country.

When she met former Anand & Anand lawyer and Supreme Court and Delhi High Court litigator Swathi Sukumar, who is now i-Probono’s India country director, “we got talking and realised we both had that passion for instituting pro bono culture in India”, recounts Irani.

Irani: No serious global practice can ignore pro bono
Irani: No serious global practice can ignore pro bono
“Building a culture of pro bono in Indian law firms is long over due. No serious practice that wants to operate at a global standard can ignore the need for a coherent pro bono policy.”


Sukumar says: “Unlike in the US and the UK where you have structured pro bono programmes there is very little systemic or institutional support to do pro bono work [in Indian law firms].”

“When we first started speaking to firms in 2008 all they talked about were the challenges and the reasons why it wasn't possible in India,” agrees Irani. “We were met with the parochial attitude of ‘we haven't got time for pro bono’, or worse we were treated to long anecdotes of the work done for a client's family charity as a justification for doing nothing more.”

But something changed after the recession, she claims. “Maybe there is more slack time to consider non-billable activities, maybe in a more competitive legal market pro bono is seen to be a differentiator. Less cynically, perhaps it’s the coming of age for a new generation of lawyers who want to use their skills for more than negotiating a commercial deal - lawyers who want to facilitate positive change and play a part in shaping their communities.”

“There hasn’t been a real kick back from firms why they shouldn’t do it but actually something that we’ve found is that, yes, there is an interest but no one has the time or the know-how to implement it.”

Template for good

At the roundtable addressed issues included how to institutionalise programmes and even the basic “why should we”, says Irani. “It [also] went straight into quite a constructive conversation about which bodies need to be brought on board. Most of [the law firms] are getting to the level where they want to be more systematised.”

A template “pro bono policy” was circulated after the Delhi meeting, which law firms were “very enthusiastic” about adopting.

i-Probono would also work hard over the coming year to identify legitimate Indian non-governmental organisations and particularly umbrella bodies such as Ashoka that could vet and certify NGOs to take part in the scheme, as well as train those NGOs to express their legal needs in a way that lawyers can better act and advise on.

Ashoka’s Antara Lahiri, an ex-Amarchand associate who heads up Ashoka’s Law for All Initiative, says that she and i-Probono were now looking to develop a more systemic and inclusive solution to tackle the problem of lack of access to legal support for the Indian civil society as a whole. “We are building the structure to enable civil society organisations across India to gain access to quality pro bono legal services by partnering with lawyers as well as law firms. This format will also help lawyers to take ownership and be a part of the social change that is happening in India today.”

Top down

Irani notes that the main challenges in getting firms to do pro bono work on a large scale were to properly recognise pro bono in associate and partner appraisals, getting buy-in from the top of the firm, and getting the in-house community on board to make pro bono ultimately also affect the bottom line.

Sukumar explains: “First you need to have a policy and recognise that it’s a legitimate use of time. You incentivise it in your appraisals, you have it recognised as valid use of time. It should be a component of your evaluation and review of an associate’s time.” However, every firm’s internal procedures were different and one size would not fit all.

Irani adds that endorsement was also required from managing or senior partners, otherwise the programmes would fail. “That’s where we will see a sea change, as soon as you see someone right at the top of the organisation. You need the buy in from only one or two at the top; when you get them you get the ball rolling.”

Finally, it is vital that law firms’ clients also came on board. Pro bono and diversity culture in the UK law firms, for example, only really caught on once influential in-house departments such as that of Tyco or BT made a firm’s pro bono credentials a requirement for landing on its panel. Now most of the largest UK firms are involved and some even publish annual CSR reports – sometimes externally audited.

Goldsmith: Pro bono is a duty, not an option
Goldsmith: Pro bono is a duty, not an option
“You have clients and in-house counsel who are really quite keen on seeing this happen,” says Irani. “We are having a conference of 23 in-house counsel about what they’re doing and how important CSR is to them.” She notes that most of the in-housers are “terrific”, such as the work of Indian Hotels Company general manager legal Arnaz Kotwal, whose legal team was running a free legal advice service for more than 800 of the Taj Hotels’ employees to help them deal with everyday problems.

“We want to get them [the in-house counsel] on board and harness that energy and create a business reason to do pro bono. Why it is the right thing to do is in the fabric of every lawyer but there has to be a business element – that has been cause in the US or the UK,” says Irani.

But she acknowledges that there is still a divide between what in-house counsel could realistically do in the underlawyered Indian market where there is still relatively limited competition. She recounts that some “really senior in-house counsel” said that they wouldn’t have any qualms about not using a firm and using another for pro bono reasons if there were more options out there.

However, they also added that this was perhaps less applicable now as compared to a few years ago, according to Irani. “Now it’s beginning to spread out a little bit more with the breakaway firms.”

Pro futura

Overall things are looking up, maintain Irani and Sukumar.

“Whatever the reason, over the last two years we've seen a raft of lawyers transition from being apathetic to proactive,” claims the i-Probono founder.

“We have been working closely with in-house counsel who are ahead of the curve and we're now being joined by progressive firms who want to engage in the wider movement. It's lawyers at their best - not just in their pursuit of the ideals of justice, but in their ability to look past the challenges and craft solutions.”

Commenting on the Delhi seminar, Goldsmith adds: “I believe lawyers have a professional duty to undertake pro bono work. You cannot believe in the legal system without recognising the need for the law to be accessible to everyone… Every lawyer can play a part in changing society.”

i-Probono lives at www.i-probono.com

You can contact Shireen.Irani [at] i-probono.com and Swathi.Sukumar [at] i-probono.com for more information.

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