Pro Bono: The Very Essence of the Legal Profession

Awards

For more than a decade, the Financial Times has awarded annual prizes to the most innovative lawyers on three continents. The FT Innovative Leaders program covers legal innovation in more than 400 law firms. Last year the partner of a Hungarian law firm received the prestigious prize in the Rule of Law and Access to Justice category, for a pro bono project. We take a look at this field.

Atanas Politov, Europe director for positive impact at Réczicza Dentons Europe LLP.

A quick search for pro bono activities in Hungary reveals that many lawyers and law firms actively participate in such projects. The Hungarian Bar Association (Magyar Ügyvédi Kamara, or BÜK) estimates that at least 10,000 individuals encounter problems accessing legal assistance, in most cases due to lack of financial resources.

Such mass demand needs organized initiatives. On October 24 last year, BÜK organized 117 lawyers for its first Pro Bono Day, offering free of charge legal assistance to clients who registered for the event. It was so successful that BÜK was awarded PILnet’s Pro Bono Lawyer Prize of 2019 for Hungary.

It is generally accepted that complicated legal issues incur heavy costs. Commercial companies might find ways to budget for these costs, for non-governmental organizations, heavily dependent on donations, they can be unbearable burdens. The PILnet Foundation in Hungary aims to ease this by bringing together NGOs with good causes and law firms with good intents.

“The beginnings of PILnet in Hungary date back to 2005,” Tamás Barabás, senior legal officer in PILnet’s Budapest office told the Budapest Business Journal. At that time, many American and British law firms had established offices in Hungary. Pro bono work has a very long tradition both in the Anglo-Saxon legal world, but back in the mid-2000s there were only sporadic initiatives in Hungary.

Pro Bono Clearinghouse

The market needed a “clearinghouse”, able to connect the needs of the nonprofit sector with the available professional resources of the law firms. This is the role PILnet was formed to fill, Barabás notes.

Today, a law firm receives plenty of emails daily requesting pro bono assistance. Verifying all these is very time consuming and PILnet helps by selecting suitable matters, compiling these on a list and sending it out to the law firms, which choose those cases they wish to handle.

PILnet only promotes nonprofits NGOs and social enterprises, as private cases are a different area. But the workload may involve representing an individual (or individuals) whose cases are supported by an NGO, for example the rights of specific women or children, Barabás says.

PILnet also acts proactively, promoting “Pro Bono Friday”, already successfully conducted in April and May, when pro bono lawyers aided no less than 18 NGOs. Law firms and companies also offer other means of legal support for nonprofits as part of the PILnet-lead “Compliance Bridge” project.

But law firms are profit-oriented companies, so what exactly are the motivations behind accepting free of charge cases? “It is true that in a market economy, doing free work is against all rules of competition. However, there are two professions where people have been doing free work for centuries: doctors and lawyers,” says Atanas Politov, Europe director for positive impact at Réczicza Dentons Europe LLP.

Globalization and market consolidation have led to new situations on the market. It is not unusual nowadays to have 60-70 lawyers in one firm, or even more. Among them there will always be many with a drive to help, not just to do their job from 9 to 5.

Progress of Society

“They want to contribute to the progress of society, as this is the very essence of the legal profession,” Politov says. “It is very important to note that we treat each case equally, irrespective if we charge for it or not. Everybody takes this very seriously because the responsibility of taking the case or supporting someone is very big, both legally and for the image of the company.”

But pro bono work can also be an invaluable opportunity for training young lawyers. All such cases must be conducted by the exact same rules and procedures as any other. At the beginning of their careers, young lawyers rarely meet clients directly, while a pro bono case means they can get hands-on experience with a case, from start to end, Politov explains.

Pro bono is a high valued area not only in Hungary, but also in other Eastern European countries. In Romania, many business law firms stepped up their pro bono activity as part of a huge nationwide response to the coronavirus pandemic and rallied to help those impacted by the health crisis. The free legal hotline “Lawyers on Duty” is such an initiative.

The service, launched by Romanian law firm Zamfirescu Racoţi Vasile & Partners (ZRVP) on March 20, was available throughout the state of emergency in Romania. It served as a phone-based counselling hotline and resource and was created to offer immediate, personalized legal guidance to the many people affected by the current situation.

It aimed to provide easy access to the information and resources needed to make an informed decision about the legal issues callers were facing. The team of lawyers received hundreds of calls related to a variety of legal problems affecting personal and professional lives of fellow citizens, with an uptick in employment-related cases, limitation of citizens’ rights issues, attachments and enforcement procedures, bankruptcy filings, bank loans, and family law matters such as domestic violence, divorce and children visitation rights.

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