How practical is the suggestion that lawyers could close the funding gap by having to work for nothing?

Solicitors: if you wish to continue practising, you must henceforth undertake 50 to 100 hours of pro bono work each and every year.

The man who came out with that proposition, chief judge of New York State, Jonathan Lippman, is either a brave man or has never witnessed the solicitors’ profession in full indignant spate.

Imagine the howls of outrage: dentists don’t pull out teeth pro bono, so why should we work for nothing? Yet another regulation on a profession that is already over-regulated! My time is charged out at £650 an hour – that’s £65,000 I’m giving away if I do 100 hours pro bono. And so forth.

So what’s the story behind the intrepid Lippman’s incendiary suggestion? He was in Brussels at the end of November to address the association of European Bar Councils and Law Societies (CCBE) – the representative body of some one million lawyers across Europe – on the crisis facing access to justice.

‘US courts have become emergency rooms for society’s ills,’ he told delegates. ‘(Funding cuts) mean that the legal aid society of New York city now turns away eight out of every nine people seeking its help.’

He continued that access to justice in Europe has long been a fundamental right through article six [right to a fair trial] of the European Convention on Human Rights, but that budget squeezes are reducing it over here, too. ‘If only the poorest of the poor now qualify for legal assistance, is that really universal access to justice?’

Even UK legal aid, once ‘a model for the world’, has been ‘cut dramatically’, said Lippman, and it is for lawyers and judges to fill the gap where public funding is not available. ‘Because if not us, then who?’

He went on to explain that pro bono legal work was ‘part of what it means to be a lawyer’ in the US. It is ‘definitional’ of a ‘noble profession’ whose ‘obligation is to serve the disadvantaged’. Pro bono is the ‘lawyers’ opportunity to give back’; it is ‘our raison d’etre’, Lippman stated.

It is not all about altruism, he continued. Pro bono work can lead to paid work ‘down the line’ and it also gives junior lawyers responsibility earlier than they would otherwise have it in conventional practice. For all lawyers, it is a ‘badge of honour’ from which ‘firms earn prestige’, too.

Lippman ended: ‘The imposition of a public service requirement is feared by many lawyers, but it is the best way to close the justice gap. I believe 50 to 100 hours pro bono is proof of the nobility of the profession. It evens the playing field for litigants and is not done merely to enrich ourselves. It is central to our moral and ethical obligations. If not us, then who?’

Stirring words, but how practical are they? Leaving the UK aside for a moment, there are some EU member states with no tradition of legal aid and with economies that not only cannot fund it for the conceivable future, but also whose lawyers are already struggling to earn a crust. Are they going to embrace pro bono?

As for the UK, many lawyers already give of their time freely, and often unacknowledged. It is their choice and making it compulsory would surely cancel out, to use Lippman’s word, the ‘prestige’ and nobility of what they do.

On a still more fundamental note, life is tough for the profession – why pile yet more pressure on long-suffering solicitors?

Jonathan Rayner is Gazette staff writer