Pro Bono Week serves as an opportunity not only to reflect on the remarkable contribution by lawyers around the country in providing free legal advice to those in need, but also to identify where exactly pro bono assistance is most urgently needed and how legal professionals can engage most constructively.
In 2020, Jenner & Block pledged to provide $250 million (over £180 million) in free legal services to those in need of access to justice over the next five years. Averaging out at $50 million per year, this annual commitment equates to more than 10% of the firm’s most recent annual gross revenue. In London, the office has built pro bono relationships with incredible and inspirational organisations such as Advocates for International Development, Centrepoint, Legal Advice Centre (University House), Lawyers Without Borders, TrustLaw and the Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation. Working together with other organisations – combining resources and blending different skillsets and experiences – can be an extremely powerful means of achieving the greatest impact.
Following the Taliban takeover of Kabul in July 2021, Jenner & Block has been providing pro bono assistance to over 25 human rights defenders trying to flee the country and resettle in the US or UK. Our clients include a senior female judge, a senior female police officer, a pregnant journalist and activists. All these individuals are at risk of violent reprisals at the hands of the Taliban, on the basis of their work, gender, education, or perceived support for the international intervention in Afghanistan.
In one particular case, the Jenner & Block London Office has been working together with Kingsley Napley LLP in advising a senior Afghan female judge. She is at a particularly immediate and serious risk of Taliban retaliation. Having held senior positions in the Afghan Criminal Court, she sentenced violent offenders, including Taliban members and sympathisers, to long terms of imprisonment. Over the years she was subject to multiple death threats as a result of her work and she and her family frequently had to relocate to new accommodation for their safety. The people who she imprisoned have since been released by the Taliban and are now not only free on the streets, but occupying roles in the Taliban government. We are in close contact with her family in the UK, who are all desperately worried about her.
Our work, in partnership with the fantastic immigration team at Kingsley Napley, to help this Afghan judge, as well as other human rights defenders, is ongoing. Pooling our resources with their immigration team, and sharing our experiences, contacts, and skills in our respective practice areas, has allowed us to maximise our impact for our clients. Our two firms have both made commitments to dedicate resources and expertise on a pro bono basis to this important cause. More broadly, our two firms are aligned in their core values of asserting fundamental human rights and challenging miscarriages of justice, abroad as well as in the UK.
My colleague Christian Tuddenham, co-chair of Jenner & Block’s pro bono committee, wrote during Pro Bono Week last year about how the Covid-19 pandemic had exacerbated the pre-existing issue of access to justice. He spoke of the special responsibility lawyers have to ensure the system is fair and accessible for all. It was hard to envisage at the time that the coming year would bring additional crises of a magnitude that would further shake the foundation of universal access to justice.
Large-scale humanitarian crises such as the one in Afghanistan can often make people feel powerless. Particularly so for lawyers, who know how, at its best, the justice system can work to protect the vulnerable and give them a voice in the face of overwhelming opposition or persecution. But it is also for this reason that these kinds of crises should be seen as a call to arms for lawyers, to engage in whatever way they can, and rally together with colleagues, peers, clients – to help protect the rights of vulnerable people. As the UK legal industry recognises the 20th anniversary of Pro Bono Week, let’s look back on the crises of the past two decades, and all the free help provided by lawyers in the UK and elsewhere, to remind us of what the industry can achieve in the next two decades.
Lucy Blake is special counsel in the investigations, compliance and defense team at Jenner & Block in London