International law firms in Hungary make a practice of dedicating hours to working for the public good. Smaller firms also do so, but more haphazardly.
Last August, the Supreme Court awarded damages to five Roma children who were segregated by the school authorities in Miskolc. The case was preceded by a dispute between the local government and several Roma people in the town, and although the first and second instance court decisions admitted that the children were adversely affected by segregation in their school, the court did not oblige the municipality to pay damages to the Roma.
That is when the Budapest office of Morley Allen & Overy stepped in and after they filed an appeal against the judgment, the Supreme Court awarded the damages. It was a typical pro bono case.
Pro bono publico - for the public good – is the term for professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment; most typically in the legal field. It is beneficial for the client, and good for the law firm.
While the US and the UK have a very strong tradition of providing legal pro bono services, in Hungary it is mainly large international law firms, partly because of their background of tradition and partly due to their strong finances, which are most active in this field and participate in an organized, routine manner in pro bono initiatives.
This does not mean that small, even one-person law offices do not provide free of charge services, but they are usually on an ad hoc basis, are not structured and channeled through any coordinating organization, and are mostly based on local referrals.“We like to choose cases which may have an important social impact or where our cross-border experience can add value,” Balázs Sahin-Tóth, counsel of Morley Allen & Overy law firm, says.
Dealing with "real" problems
Naturally, pro bono is done on a voluntary basis. But exactly what motivates the lawyers who work for free?“The reasons for accepting pro bono assignments include gratitude towards society and the opportunity to deal with ‘real’ problems and the excitement of seeking professional challenges in unfamiliar fields of law,” Dániel Simonyi, attorney-at-law with Siegler Law Office Weil, Gotshal & Manges explains.
Weil has a full-time pro bono coordinator and recognizes attorneys who spend more than 50 hours per year on pro bono work. “In my first week as an intern at the Washington D.C. office of international law firm Weil, a pro bono assignment landed on my desk. The concept of law firms providing free legal services to the needy was not entirely unknown to me, but I was not aware how pro bono cases worked in practice,” Simonyi recalls.
“The assignment itself seemed fascinating, but my first thought was my duty towards Weil to produce billable hours through paying clients. In an uncanny coincidence, my supervisor stepped into my room to help resolve my dilemma. ‘At this firm, pro bono work and billable assignments have equal standing’, he said.”
Weil’s Budapest office’s pro bono work includes areas as diverse as protection of birds, advising disabled mothers on employment law and assisting disadvantaged children.
At a firm-wide level, Erős Ügyvédi Iroda Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP dedicates tens of thousands of hours annually to supporting several hundreds of active pro bono clients. In 2010, the Budapest office lawyers worked approximately 300 hours on pro bono matters.
“The common themes in our pro bono efforts are opportunity and support,” says Nóra Szigeti, attorney-at-law who works at Squire’s Budapest office. The office’s pro bono activities in the past few years focused mainly on providing legal advice to the International Rescue Committee, an organization which offers lifesaving care and life-changing assistance to refugees forced to flee from war or disaster; the Nonprofit Enterprise and Self-sustainability Team, an organization supporting social enterprises that strengthen civil society organizations’ financial sustainability and maximize their social impact; and the Pető Intézet, a healthcare institute focusing on the rehabilitation and special training of physically disabled people.
Some say that pro bono is only a marketing tool for law firms to generate publicity. However, it is true that in many countries, pro bono work is the only way to generate publicity, as law firms are not allowed to advertise their services. (In Hungary, the advertisement ban for law offices was lifted in 2009, but such activities are still strictly regulated.)
However, pro bono clients rarely feel that they are part of a huge publicity stunt. Neither do participating lawyers, Simonyi says. “Many of our paying clients even expect us to take on pro bono assignments,” he adds.
This article appeared in the BBJ's Law & Tax special report on May 6, 2011.