Alternative Law Journal
MICHELLE HANNON[*] presents a law firm that takes its pro bono work seriously.
Gilbert + Tobin’s commitment to assisting those who are marginalised and disadvantaged gain access to legal services has been demonstrated since the firm’s inception in 1988. Since that time lawyers at the firm have undertaken pro bono work. In 1996 Gilbert + Tobin took an innovative approach to the provision of pro bono services and became the first law firm in Australia to engage a full-time, in-house pro bono lawyer. Since then the practice has grown along with the rest of the firm and we now have two full-time pro bono lawyers who run the practice on a day-to-day basis. The practice is supported by all lawyers and partners in the firm who also take on pro bono work.
The practice has developed to the point where we are currently handling approximately 200 pro bono matters a year. The nature of these matters varies widely and has included:
• successfully running a public interest disability discrimination claim on behalf of a seven-year-old girl against the New South Wales Department of Education;
• representing more than 25 students from Mt Druitt High School in a defamation claim against the Daily Telegraph;
• representing an 80-year-old woman who had been left homeless after her family sold her home and used the proceeds of sale for their own benefit;
• acting for a family in their claim against a Sydney Hospital in relation to their child;
• providing ongoing commercial advice in relation to a range of matters for several community organisations including a peak childcare organisation, several arts organisations, and Aboriginal community organisations;
• advising community organisations in relation to their involvement in the establishment of a community bank;
• drafting submissions on behalf of a client in relation to a Bill of Rights in New South Wales;
• providing advice to Northern Territory organisations in relation to the constitutionality of mandatory sentencing;
• providing community legal education to legal centre workers about administrative law issues;
• travelling to far north west New South Wales every six weeks to provide advice and assistance to people in remote communities; and
• attending the Downing Centre as part of Domestic Violence Court Assistance Scheme every week to represent women seeking apprehended violence orders.
The practice is an integral part of the firm and its culture. Although each of the lawyers and partners at the firm might be motivated differently as to why they personally choose to undertake pro bono work, the firm’s commitment to providing pro bono services derives from two fundamental premises. First, it is the firm’s belief that as all members of the community are subject to the laws of our society, lawyers have an ethical responsibility to help ensure all people have access to legal services when they are confronted with legal issues. Second, we also recognise that lawyers are relatively privileged members of the community both financially and socially and are in a position to make a strong and positive contribution to members of our community who are less privileged in these respects.
Our experience is that the practice promotes the firm’s success by attracting and retaining talented and dedicated staff and creating a workplace that is imbued with a greater sense of unity and accomplishment as a result of the work undertaken in the pro bono practice. The appeal of pro bono work stems not just from the fact that lawyers are given the opportunity to use their skills to help people who would otherwise not receive assistance but because often it also gives them the opportunity to work in areas of personal interest to them. The cases can add variety and new experiences to their work because they frequently involve matters outside the scope of a lawyer’s usual work load and allow them to work with people from sectors they would not normally work with.
Naturally conducting a pro bono practice in a successful commercial law firm also has its challenges. The time pressures on lawyers mean we cannot always assist with as many matters as we would like. Occasionally the nature of the work some clients or organisations ask us to take on can be controversial and the debates surrounding our participation in some of these matters have allowed us to develop a more mature and effective pro bono practice. A further difficulty faced by those undertaking and promoting pro bono work is trying to assist in the provision of access to justice without encouraging the government to surrender its responsibility to adequately fund community legal services. Despite our dedication to assisting those who are marginalised and disadvantaged, Gilbert + Tobin is strongly of the view that it is not the private sector’s role to meet government’s responsibility in ensuring access to legal services for a large number of the community. Our practice aims to help meet the needs of those who ‘fall between the gap’ and cannot access government or community sector services but are unable to afford legal services themselves. This factor is something that is foremost in our mind when accepting matters on a day to day basis and making decisions about the broader development of our service.
[*] Michelle Hannon is a pro bono lawyer with Gilbert + Tobin Lawyers.
© 2002 Michelle Hannon