Taking responsibility for pro bono

Steps towards greater institutionalisation demonstrate law firms are embedding a culture of pro bono among both their lawyers and wider communities. Firms that are serious about delivering access to justice are taking things to the next level, fostering higher levels of accountability within their internal processes to make sure they secure meaningful results. We present some of the key findings from the latest Latin Lawyer–Vance Center Pro Bono Survey.

By Christina McKeon Frutuoso

Taking responsibility for pro bono

Steps towards greater institutionalisation demonstrate law firms are embedding a culture of pro bono among both their lawyers and wider communities. Firms that are serious about delivering access to justice are taking things to the next level, fostering higher levels of accountability within their internal processes to make sure they secure meaningful results. We present some of the key findings from the latest Latin Lawyer–Vance Center Pro Bono Survey.

By Christina McKeon Frutuoso

“It’s like a double wave – you give, and you receive. And when you’ve done it once, you want to keep doing it over and over again.”

The compelling nature and value of doing pro bono work is summed up well in these words by Esther Cecilia Blondet, partner at Venezuela’s Despacho de Abogados miembros de Dentons.

Latin America is rife with inequality and very large numbers of people lack the means by which to access justice. But the region is also increasingly home to law firms and lawyers eager to address this fault.

Our annual Latin Lawyer-Vance Center pro bono survey reveals some important areas of progress. The findings are reflective of the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice and local clearing houses in the region making good on their ambition to encourage the spread of pro bono (and the systems required to do it) across law firms in Latin America.

“Partner involvement in pro bono not only fosters a greater collegial work environment, but also contributes to a well-rounded training that will certainly be distinctive for law firm lawyers.”
Bianca dos Santos Waks Mattos Filho, Veiga Filho, Marrey Jr e Quiroga Advogados

The results show a jump in the number of law firms completing more than 1,000 hours of pro bono work per year – up from 25% in 2018 to 32% in 2019. Our survey also indicates close to 9 out of 10 firms now have designated pro bono coordinators, a figure that is up from 75% in 2016. Almost 9% of coordinators work full-time on pro bono related projects. Coordinators, part-time or full-time, play a pivotal role in connecting their law firm to its clearing house, ensuring a flow of pro bono work.

There are other ways firms are formalising their pro bono efforts: according to our survey, 71% have pro bono committees, a figure that is up nearly 10% from 2018. These teams help decide which lawyers take on which cases and are often a point of call internally for all things pro bono.

Having lawyers dedicated to pro bono is crucial, says Willkie Farr & Gallagher’s Latin America practice head Maria-Leticia Ossa Daza, as more and more firms recognise the importance of actively seeking cases that can most benefit from their expertise. “They’re also critical for organising internal programmes and training to help other lawyers be in a position to do pro bono,” she adds. “To educate people about the critical issues at stake, it’s important to raise awareness at your firm of the pro bono work lawyers have been doing.”

Over the years, many firms in Latin America have endeavoured to institutionalise pro bono. Now, accountability is coming to the forefront. More firms want to foster a culture among their lawyers that goes beyond having the right structures in place; they want lawyers to be accountable for their participation in pro bono too.

Those who are serious about the practice are incorporating pro bono into remuneration processes, strengthening their collaboration with clearing houses and making pro bono efforts more inclusive. The results of our survey indicate firms are taking responsibility for their pro bono practices and, in doing so, they are shaping them into forces capable of responding to the challenges and opportunities of today.

Taking it to the next level

With many firms having appointed dedicated coordinators and committees, the right ingredients are in place for lawyers to get involved in pro bono if they want to. But to cement a culture of working pro bono, some law firms serious about the practice have taken steps to reduce the attractiveness of not doing it.

Our survey suggests firms are placing more onus on lawyers to complete pro bono work in order to advance their careers. Four out of five said pro bono contributions are considered in career evaluations for associates (up from the previous year).

Many are taking it a step further. More than half of firms said pro bono hours are taken into account to determine associate salary, bonuses and advancement. Moreover, 59% treat pro bono like billable hours in terms of associate compensation – nearly 10% more than those who reported doing so in 2018. This is an important progression. “If a law firm wants to promote a serious pro bono effort among its lawyers, the only way to do it is to treat pro bono hours like billable hours,” says Morales & Besa pro bono head and partner Edmundo Varas. “Since we founded our pro bono practice, we have always run things this way and we have always had a high rate of commitment and involvement from our team.”

Varas acknowledges that there is a “delicate equilibrium” between doing pro bono hours and traditional, paid-for hours – “firms are businesses and productivity is at the centre of them” – but affirms that pro bono brings value that other practices do not. “Even though pro bono hours don’t generate a direct impact on revenue, there are studies which conclude that the indirect effects of a pro bono programme can have a positive impact on revenue by enhancing and supporting a firm’s goals and activities,” he says.

Further accountability is evidenced by the fact that 84% of firms now measure their pro bono work, while 70% of firms have dedicated mechanisms and methodologies in place to track the work they do. Back in 2016, just over half of firms had these in place.


Bianca dos Santos Waks


Edmundo Varas


Maria-Leticia Ossa Daza


Esther Cecilia Blondet

“If a law firm wants to promote a serious pro bono effort among its lawyers, the only way to do it is to treat pro bono hours like billable hours.”
Edmundo Varas Morales & Besa

But measuring without a specified aim is a futile practice. Some 57% of law firms have a target number of pro bono hours they expect every lawyer to complete. These are in place to focus attention on the work at hand and illustrate the commitment of law firm leadership to achieve desired outcomes.

Some are hesitant to evaluate pro bono work in purely quantitative terms, however. “Hours don’t tell a full story – impact does,” says Jaime Trujillo Caicedo, chair of the Latin America region and partner in Baker McKenzie’s Bogotá office. He points out that firms could aspire to measure the effect of pro bono by reflecting on the importance of the work, rather than the time it takes to do it.

Indeed, there is an evolving conversation happening globally about the relevance of outcome-based analysis of pro bono work, with many arguing that framing pro bono in this light gets at the heart of what pro bono work means, rather than just viewing it purely quantitatively. “We should have the impact of our work evaluated in a more complex way, but the discussion is just starting and it is easier said than done,” adds Trujillo.

More work to be done

Of the firms surveyed, the average number of hours dedicated to pro bono in 2019 was 17.08 per associate. That number falls short of the 20 hours required of law firms who have signed the Pro Bono Declaration for the Americas (PBDA). Our data indicates partners are further from this target, giving, on average, 14.61 hours of free legal counsel per year.

Partners tend not to be held accountable when it comes to clocking up pro bono hours: just 31% of respondent firms said pro bono work is considered when calculating partner compensation.

In all other practice areas, partners lead the way and are rewarded for doing so; but in pro bono, there is still much more work to be done. Law firm leadership must recognise and promote the value that comes from having partners actively involved in these cases. “Senior lawyers benefit from the experience of working outside their comfort zone, being in contact with clients, cases and subjects that can differ from their daily discussions,” says Mattos Filho, Veiga Filho, Marrey Jr e Quiroga Advogados’ pro bono associate Bianca dos Santos Waks.

There are benefits of partners collaborating with younger members of the firm on pro bono matters. “[Partner involvement] not only fosters a greater collegial work environment, but also contributes to a well-rounded training that will certainly be distinctive for the firm’s lawyers,” adds Waks.

The PBDA’s target should be manageable – it equates to working less than three Saturdays a year, or just under four minutes per day.

But it would be too easy to say the main hurdle that stops lawyers – including partners – doing pro bono is lack of time, says Baker McKenzie’s Trujillo. “Great lawyers don’t want to take something on unless they know they can do an excellent job and see it to completion,” he says. “That is what makes lawyers concerned about taking on the responsibility of helping a vulnerable individual with what may be the most important issue in their lives.”

Clearing houses take seriously their role in motivating partners at member law firms to get in on the action. Fundación Pro Bono Chile gives preferential treatment to partners who want to choose what cases they work on, while Centro Mexicano Pro Bono thinks contact with law firm partners directly encourages more of them to get involved, asking for their input on how to improve the process so they feel more involved as a key player in pro bono activities.

Is pro bono women’s territory?

It’s a man’s world, so the James Brown song goes, but in the pro bono field things can look quite different. A large percentage of pro bono coordinators who completed Latin Lawyer’s survey are women, and during the research stage it became obvious that the gender split for leadership positions within pro bono efforts at law firms seems fairly even – a rarity in almost all other practice areas, where male partners tend to dominate.

One explanation could be that women have historically been the caregivers of society, especially in Latin America, and so might be more drawn to pro bono work and its charitable spirit than men. There is also the stereotype that legal practices like litigation and banking and finance are considered more aggressive in terms of performance and financial compensation, and so have been dominated by men (the stereotypically more ‘aggressive’ sex) who might neglect practice areas like pro bono, which often involves labour, civil rights, human rights and criminal law.

One managing partner suggests men often dominate pro bono litigation cases, but these cases are few and far between; women, on the other hand, often take on more long-term, abundant issues, including those spanning labour and immigration law, which are less publicised.

But times are changing, and fast, as Mattos Filho, Veiga Filho, Marrey Jr e Quiroga Advogados’ pro bono associate Bianca dos Santos Waks explains. “Coordinating pro bono requires complex capabilities. Coordinators must combine boldness with empathy – characteristics that can be common in women but not innate or exclusive to us,” she says.

Firms that consider pro bono hours as billable and part of evaluations are ultimately encouraging both men and women lawyers to take part, which is helping to do away with stereotypes individuals might hold toward practice areas. Indeed, there are men lawyers pioneering pro bono efforts in their jurisdictions who are helping to prove stereotypes do not necessarily reflect the reality.

Gender diverse teams highlight exactly why pro bono work can bring together lawyers of all backgrounds and practice areas for a common fight. “Women – like men – are always willing to risk, create and innovate,” says Waks. “These characteristics – coupled with deep knowledge of the social field, the functions of civil society and human rights litigation – are fundamental to the career of a pro bono lawyer and, like other positions, should be valued and recognised.”

Finding the value

Any discussion about how to make lawyers accountable for doing pro bono necessitates thinking about the reasons why lawyers do it in the first place.

Almost all firms told us their biggest motivation was a sense of duty to society. Many recognised that their commitment to the PBDA and retaining talent were important factors too.

Among the many benefits of doing pro bono is that lawyers get to team up with clients, peers from other firms and NGOs, giving them a participatory stake in the wider legal market beyond their immediate sphere.

In Peru, law firms have put aside market rivalry to work on the Integrando Horizontes project, led by the Pan American Development Foundation and co-organised by Alianza Pro Bono Perú. The initiative has been giving legal counsel to Venezuelan immigrants and individuals trafficked or suffering domestic violence in Peru since 2019. Law firms Benites, Vargas & Ugaz Abogados; Estudio Echecopar; Philippi Prietocarrizosa Ferrero DU & Uría (Peru); Miranda & Amado Abogados; Rebaza, Alcázar & De Las Casas; and Osterling Abogados are working together to help individuals fleeing the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela with immigration applications, as well as helping them adapt to the impact of the covid-19 pandemic.

Due to widespread lockdowns all immigration offices have closed, so immigrants arriving in Peru and individuals who need to renew previously-approved licences are stuck in limbo, without access to healthcare, shelter or amenities. “The pandemic and its impact have caused a huge wave in illegal immigrants trying to exercise their right to live here, but they can’t do so in the traditional way because public offices are closed, and not all procedures have moved online,” says PPU (Peru) associate Ana Roque. She is one of the lawyers advising volunteers who travel to the border to help immigrants access licensing application forms online and indicate what rights they have to emergency relief.

The resilience Roque has seen demonstrated, gives her hope. Law firms are not the only ones coming together for a common cause. “It was emotional to see because most of the volunteers were legal immigrants who had gone through this same process themselves; they wanted to help their fellow countrypersons,” she adds.

The tangible impact pro bono work has is hard to find in other practice areas. In representing companies, corporate lawyers deal with numbers, spreadsheets and contracts most of the time; but working for marginalised individuals and groups offers something outside this remit. “With pro bono work – like labour and immigration law – there is always that connection with people,” says PPU’s Roque.

The value of doing this work is hard to fully capture, but its impact is easy to see. “Pro bono work gives us the possibility as lawyers to understand that law is a tool for social change,” affirms Gómez-Pinzón partner and pro bono coordinator María Alejandra Salazar Tamayo.


Jaime Trujillo Caicedo


María Alejandra Salazar Tamayo


Ana Roque

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