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Sharing skills and tackling social issues
The government’s programme, which aims to give children the best start in life by offering vouchers for parenting classes, has been hitting the headlines in the last month. I have a unique perspective on the programme because I have been doing some pro bono work supporting Family Links, one of the social enterprises contracted to deliver these classes, in negotiating their contracts.
The opportunity to help Family Links came to me because Freshfields takes on pro bono projects from venture philanthropy organisation Impetus Trust. We really like the work that Impetus does, and were keen to be involved. They are an impressive organisation that gives money, management support and top-notch professional skills to charities and social enterprises, so they can help more people. They apply a lot of commercial and business thinking to the social sector, and measure their success by the growth in the charity’s income and number of people helped. Family Links is one of the inspiring organisations that Impetus supports.
The first part of my role on this project was to review the contracts produced by the Department for Education and discuss with Family Links any points they might want to question or negotiate and any protections they should put in place. The governance of these large outsourced government projects is crucial, yet many charities do not have the expertise to manage contract negotiations in-house. The second part of my work for Family Links was to draft subcontracts between Family Links and two other providers of parenting classes who are going to help deliver the agreed contract with the Department for Education.
In my work at Freshfields, I review lots of commercial contracts, so this was familiar territory. The subject was different from what I’ve been used to dealing with but, at the end of the day, it’s still a commercial contract and the principles of what our clients would want and expect are the same. I’ve been working on the project over the past six weeks or so, mostly over the phone and by email with Gina Hocking at Family Links. I’ve actually never met her, but I hope to soon.
It’s really important that charities and social enterprises tackling some of society’s toughest issues should have access to the best-quality legal advice available. So I am happy to help. Although there are a number of ways individuals can contribute to charities, I believe the most valuable form of contribution is one that draws on our professional skills.
Social enterprise is still in its early days and for this sector to develop and grow it is important it has the best people behind it and the best advice available. The margins on social enterprise projects are tight and having to pay commercial rates for top legal advice would destroy the economics of many transactions.
In the future the sector will become more developed and contracts may become more standardised and require less intensive legal support, but at the moment practices and forms of documentation are still developing and it is important that good quality support is available in order to develop the sector in a sustainable way. This will only happen if charitable organisations have access to good people from a range of professional backgrounds, including legal. Firms that can offer the resources and experience of their staff through pro bono volunteering are making a real contribution to social change.
At Freshfields we have a strong commitment to pro bono work. Last year, lawyers in our London office alone contributed over 20,000 hours of free legal advice to charities and to individuals who could not afford to pay for it. Our pro bono clients range from some of the largest international charities to individual asylum seekers - and everything in-between. We don’t treat our pro bono projects any differently from our commercial work; it’s accounted for on our timesheets and counted as client time. We take on some fairly substantial projects that lawyers have contributed huge amounts of time to and the firm is very supportive of that.
But there is also a benefit to us. Pro bono contracts present scenarios that you would not necessarily come across negotiating for, say, a commercial bank. It’s important to be able to adapt yourself to different priorities and it raises issues that you might not see elsewhere. It helps to build skills and that’s a benefit for us and the firm. By doing this kind of work we can benefit at the same time as giving something back.
I really care about giving children a good start in life, but I don’t have the necessary skills to deliver parenting classes. It’s very satisfying for me that through projects like this, I know I’m contributing in the best way I can.
Fiona Henderson is an Associate in the Structured and Asset Finance team at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP