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3 May 20222 minute read

The Business Case for Pro Bono 2022

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the publication of ‘The BusinessCase for Pro Bono’ a seminal piece by the late, great Esther F Lardent,then President of the Pro Bono Institute, architect of the modern institutionalpro bono movement, revered pro bono leader, and a dear friend.The ‘business case for pro bono’ was the foundation upon which many lawfirms (my own included) constructed their pro bono practice over the past2 decades; but after 20 years, has the business case for pro bono changed?Do law firms with mature pro bono practices still benefit from having a clearbusiness case? Is a business case necessary or useful for law firms startingout on their pro bono journey?

As I commenced the process of reviewing and updating the business case forpro bono, these were some of the questions weighing on my mind.I also recalled a conversation that I had with one of the leaders of my ownfirm in 2004. Shortly after the pro bono policy I had written was approved byour board, a senior partner at my firm asked me to merge the business caseand the pro bono policy into a single document for publication. Even thoughI had authored both documents, I ‘strenuously’ objected and told this seniorpartner I could not, in good conscience incorporate the business case into thepro bono policy, and certainly not if the document was intended for externalor internal consumption. He chuckled and asked if I had a Jesuit education.I had no idea what that meant at the time but I had won the day, and in theyears that followed I came to take his remark as a compliment.

The concept of a business case still doesn’t sit particularly comfortably withme. I much prefer the approach adopted by the leading Australian lawfirm, Gilbert + Tobin, whose founder and Managing Partner, Danny Gilberthas explained “we didn’t write a business case, we knew it was the rightthing to do”. But good pro bono lawyers are pragmatists and recognise theimportance of demonstrating return on investment – it is the very best wayof achieving an initial allocation of funding and the best way to unlock furtherresource and budget for pro-social initiatives.