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The Role of Law Firms in Increasing Access to Justice Globally

The Role of Law Firms in Increasing Access to Justice Globally

By Sara Andrews, Senior International Pro Bono Counsel and Assistant Director, New Perimeter

Do private sector lawyers have a role to play in increasing access to justice for people who cannot afford legal representation around the world? Based on recent events, the answer appears to be a resounding yes. 

In March, leaders of 157 corporate law firms sent a letter to the US Office of Management and Budget urging it not to cut funding for the Legal Services Corporation, a major source of financial support for civil legal services to the poor in the United States. Each year private law firms donate millions of hours of pro bono (free) legal services to individuals in need of assistance. The letter pointed out that this assistance is directly dependent on law firm partnerships with legal aid organizations.

Corporate law’s focus on pro bono legal services is not limited to the United States, however. The rise of global law firms has extended the geographic reach of pro bono. Increasingly, major law firms are providing legal assistance in developing regions of the world, sending lawyers to help governments draft laws, train practicing lawyers and law students, help paralegal organizations and provide assistance to NGOs focused on international development.  

For example, in 2005, global law firm DLA Piper created a nonprofit affiliate called New Perimeter. New Perimeter organizes teams of lawyers from within the firm to provide long-term pro bono legal assistance in underserved regions around the world to support access to justice, social and economic development, and sound legal institutions.

On March 7, an event hosted by New Perimeter and Pro Bono Institute (PBI) in Washington, DC underscored the increasing support and interest among private sector law firms in supporting global pro bono. The day-long event, titled “Gathering On Global Pro Bono: Honoring Esther Lardent’s Legacy,” focused on the role of corporate lawyers in helping to increase access to justice around the world. Attendees included more than 80 lawyers from law firms, corporations, and NGOs. The gathering was held in honor of Esther Lardent, PBI’s late founder and former president, who was instrumental in encouraging and helping to develop institutional pro bono programs at law firms and corporations, both in the US and globally.

Why should private sector lawyers care about increasing access to justice in communities thousands of miles from their own? In the keynote address, Senator George Mitchell highlighted the legal profession’s ethical obligations.

“In these uncertain times,” he stated, “encouraging an engaged legal sector that supports access to justice not just locally, but globally, is critically important. Lawyers have a special responsibility as a profession to ensure that our systems of justice exist and operate to benefit everyone in a society–not just those with power and resources.”  

Global law firms, with their large networks of practitioners in multiple jurisdictions, are particularly well-positioned to work on pro bono initiatives in underserved regions. Moreover, these types of projects can benefit law firms. Lawyers report that working on New Perimeter projects increases their professional satisfaction, and the program helps with employee recruitment and retention. At a large international firm, the program also helps build critical employee skills and forges internal cross-sector and cross-border connections.  

How can law firms provide pro bono legal assistance in regions where they may not have a local presence? The event aimed to explore just that, including notable examples of success stories. Jayne Fleming of Reed Smith discussed how her firm sent teams of lawyers to Haiti, post-earthquake, to help rape victims obtain humanitarian parole, and to Greece to assist Middle Eastern refugees with their legal needs. During a session focused on building local capacity through legal education, Lou O’Neil from White and Case described his firm’s efforts to help build and support a law school in Bhutan, a small country in the Himalayas with a population of approximately 750,000, where no law school existed previously.  

In a session focused on combatting violence against women, Crystal Doyle from DLA Piper discussed New Perimeter’s partnership with Vital Voices Global Partnership. New Perimeter sends lawyers to help Vital Voices deliver workshops in Asia and South America that bring together prosecutors, judges, police officers and victim service providers to improve and coordinate the response to gender-based violence. During a discussion on UN Sustainable Development Goal 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions), Christina Koulias, from the UN Global Compact, described how law firms can align their strategies, including their pro bono programs, with UN development goals.  

An overarching theme during the gathering was the need for international pro bono projects to include strong partnerships with local organizations to ensure that project goals are in accordance with local priorities and to avoid imposition of cultural perspectives that might be deemed offensive or imperialistic. As with all pro bono efforts, whether domestic or global, the goal of private sector lawyer involvement is not to replace the efforts of local organizations and public interest lawyers, but rather to supplement and support them.

The enthusiastic response from law firms and corporate lawyers who participated in the gathering and the rich examples of the diverse array of projects that are being undertaken around the world demonstrate the strong support for private sector involvement in global efforts to increase access to justice.   

This involvement is, however, a relatively new concept for the private legal sector and there is both room and need to improve upon and innovate processes. Participants raised some important questions during the event that are ripe for further examination, including:  

These questions are ones that the private sector lawyers and law firms need to address, but they are not questions for them to answer alone. We need input from those working in government, policy and the development sector to ensure that the solutions we collectively develop are ones that are effective, sustainable, and lead to desired outcomes.

April 20, 2017 | Sara Andrews

Region: > Global