‘Justice for all’: FTSE 100 GCs push for pro bono engagement with UK In House Pro Bono Pledge

With the erosion of legal aid, the cost of living crisis and an increasing business focus on ESG, the role of pro bono legal advice is increasingly in the spotlight. In response to escalating demand, leading GCs have banded together to launch a scheme they hope will rise to the challenge.

General counsel from FTSE 100 companies and other large UK businesses have signed the UK In House Pro Bono Pledge, committing their organisations to engage with pro bono work and bolster their ESG initiatives.

The pledge was created by the In House Pro Bono Group, a non-profit working group founded in 2019 to foster a commitment to pro bono among the in-house community, in collaboration with the National Pro Bono Centre and GC100, the association for FTSE 100 GCs and company secretaries.

The Pledge, which is inviting engagement from the in-house legal departments of all companies, is endorsed by LawWorks (the Solicitors Pro Bono Group); Advocate, the Bar’s national pro bono charity; and BACFI, the Bar Association for Commerce, Finance and Industry.

The first ten signatories to the pledge are:

  • Airtel Africa
  • Coca-Cola Europacific Partners
  • GSK
  • ITV
  • London Stock Exchange Group
  • Ocado Group
  • Taylor Wimpey
  • The Goldman Sachs Group
  • United Utilities
  • Whitbread

As per the Pledge, GCs and heads of legal must commit to encourage 25% of their UK-based lawyers to participate in a minimum of one hour pro bono work over the next 12 months, increasing to 35% next year and 50% the following year.

Signatories must also commit to asking their external legal providers to disclose details of their pro bono activities and be clear regarding their support for pro bono.

Mentoring will be offered to all in-house champions by the In House Pro Bono Group to help them execute the pledge and increase pro bono participation across their companies.

Access to justice

More than ten years on from The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) coming into force, the legal aid system still faces huge challenges, with access to justice heavily restricted across England and Wales.

Data collected by The Law Society shows that between 2009-10 and 2021-22, the number of legal aid cases which allowed people to access early advice dropped from almost one million to 130,000.

In that same timeframe the number of law centres carrying out legal aid work fell by 59%, while the number of individuals attending court without representation tripled.

Legal advice ‘deserts’ have sprung up across the country, with 49.8m people having no access to a local welfare legal aid provider and 42m people having no access to a local community care legal aid provider.

Against this backdrop, the need for experienced and qualified lawyers stepping in to plug the gap through pro bono work has never been more vital.

‘To have a fair justice system, people have to have access to justice,’ explains Clare Wardle, general counsel at Coca-Cola Europacific Partners.

‘We have seen the erosion of legal aid. If you think about it now, to get time from someone legally qualified, it’s a minimum of £200 an hour, which is easily someone’s disposable income for a week,’ she adds.

Ishaq Kayani, group general counsel and company secretary at Taylor Wimpey, takes a similar view: ‘This important initiative aligns seamlessly with our core values of doing the right thing and being responsible to our people – especially our employees, customers, and communities.

‘We look forward to working with the In House Pro Bono Group to contribute towards increasing access to justice for all.’

Alignment with existing ESG initiatives

Nowadays, with ESG high up the agenda for businesses, many will already have some form of pro bono or volunteering opportunities in place. The Pledge, therefore, serves as a way for legal departments to formalise and recommit to existing ESG initiatives and further develop their current offerings.

As ITV’s director of legal and content compliance Claire Posner says: ‘At ITV we recognise the importance and impact of pro bono activity in the legal profession, and being part of this pledge builds on our history of providing pro bono work and the current initiatives that we have in place.’

For example, lawyers from the broadcaster already participate in a clinic run by the Islington Law Centre, alongside one of ITV’s panel firms, CMS.

Through the clinic ITV lawyers provide free, in-person legal advice to local people who live, work or study in Islington, who cannot access or afford other legal advice.

Coca-Cola takes a similar approach, as Wardle says: ‘At Coca-Cola we really believe that in order to be a long-term sustainable business, businesses need to support communities.’ In practice, this means the company has set up ESG initiatives such as a two day a year volunteering programme, and its Step Up Scheme, which organises internships for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

By participating in the Pledge, Coca-Cola’s legal department will aim to formalise its engagement with Coca-Cola’s existing ESG offerings to provide targeted pro bono opportunities for its lawyers.

The business case

Some GCs with ever-tightening budgets and increasing workloads would be forgiven for feeling sceptical about committing a set percentage of their workforce’s time to non-business critical endeavours. However, there is a compelling argument to be made that pro bono engagement does not just make you a ‘good business’ – it is in fact good for business.

‘At CCEP we believe that to be a long-term sustainable business, we need to have a positive impact on people and their communities. Pro bono is an important part of this,’ says Wardle.

‘Doing pro bono work gives you a broader skillset. It helps you think flexibly about problems, and lets lawyers engage with people outside of their immediate professional community, by listening to and engaging with them.’

For a profession, that has a tendency to be inward-looking and sometimes esoteric, the opportunity to get lawyers outside of their comfort zones may pay dividends in terms of long-term professional development and provide a sense of community in modern workplaces that can be increasingly siloed.

This is also no bad thing in the context of retention and recruitment. ‘There is an increasing expectation of companies to engage in this way. Being part of this scheme sends a clear signal of commitment to having a positive impact on people and communities, as a business and as an individual,’ Wardle adds.

Will it work?

The pledge, therefore, marks a step in the right direction for companies wishing to utilise their talent to address the widening gap in access to justice and to further enhance their current ESG offerings, and is also likely to help companies underline their credentials as attractive and progressive employers.

However, the problems the Pledge wishes to address are complex and entrenched. While it is undoubtedly a positive that so many major corporations have signed up, and will be endeavouring to positively influence the pro bono activities of their external legal advisors, these issues will need sustained attention from GCs if they wish to make a lasting impact.

As a starting point, however, the Pledge is undoubtedly a confident step in the right direction.

The Pledge

To sign up to the Pledge GCs will need to commit to the following:

‘We recognise the importance and value of legal pro bono work to individuals, employees, our company and most importantly, to wider society. It forms part of the contribution we make as an employer, demonstrating our commitment to be a responsible and caring contributor to society. Our legal team commits to the UK In House Pro Bono Pledge and will fulfil its key undertakings. We hugely look forward to using our skills to improve access to justice for all and to play our part in making a better world.’

Pledge 1
The GC will appoint a Pro Bono Champion(s).

Pledge 2
The Pro Bono Champion(s) will join the In House Pro Bono Group.

Pledge 3
The Pro Bono Champion will indicate if they would like to be supported by a designated mentor from the In House Pro Bono Group.

Pledge 4
The Pro Bono Champion will outline how the pledge statement can apply within the company, particularly providing suggestions about how pro bono will be situated within the wider organisational CSR or ESG strategy.

Pledge 5
The organisation commits to encourage 25% of the UK-based lawyers to undertake a minimum of one hour of pro bono work in the first year rising to 35% in the second year and 50% in the third year.

Pledge 6
The legal team will track pro bono work undertaken, on an hourly and project basis.

Pledge 7
The legal team will ask their key external law firms and chambers to provide details of their pro bono activities and to be clear about their support for pro bono.