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Growing numbers of US lawyers are doing pro bono work in other countries

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St. Louis University law students assist homeless vets at an annual volunteer event. Photo by John Amman.

Like just about everything else involving the legal profession, pro bono has gone global. For U.S. lawyers, that means options for engaging in public service work aren’t confined to handling cases through a legal assistance office in town or supporting a local nonprofit organization.

Instead, growing numbers of American lawyers are representing pro bono clients in such diverse locales as Brazil, China, Dubai and South Africa. Increasingly, law firms, corporate legal departments, public interest networks and bar associations are partnering with nongovernmental organizations and other nonprofits, clearinghouses and local legal counsel.

The uptick in such work by U.S. lawyers and their counterparts abroad fortuitously coincides with an unprecedented worldwide demand for legal assistance to combat various forms of discrimination, violence, injustice and corruption. Women, migrant workers, refugees, immigrants, asylum-seekers, prisoners and victims of human trafficking are just some of the world’s poor and disadvantaged who often find themselves with no legal recourse when their rights are challenged or taken away.

Recent statistics illustrate this trend. A survey of international pro bono activities conducted in 2012 by Latham & Watkins, a global law firm based in Los Angeles, for the Pro Bono Institute in Washington, D.C., identified initiatives in 71 jurisdictions around the world. The first survey in 2005 covered 11 jurisdictions, almost all of them in Europe, says Esther F. Lardent, the PBI’s president and chief executive officer. She was one of the speakers at a conference on global pro bono sponsored in April by the Program on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School.

The PBI’s Global Pro Bono Project provides support to lawyers and firms doing public service work in other countries by providing consulting services, research and development, educational programming and publications. Describing its mission, the PBI’s website says the institute “works to strengthen pro bono culture, policy and practice in the legal profession around the world.”


But the PBI isn’t the only legal organization that is advocating and supporting global pro bono. In 2008, the council of the International Bar Association adopted the Pro Bono Declaration, which calls on lawyers, law firms and bar associations to provide pro bono legal service as an integral part of their work. The declaration emphasizes that “access to justice for all individuals is a human right,” and that “the delivery of pro bono service by the legal profession is of vital public and professional interest and helps to fulfill the unmet legal needs of the poor, underprivileged and marginalized.”

The ABA offers perhaps the most expansive list of global pro bono opportunities through the combined efforts of the Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service, supported by the Center for Professional Development and the Rule of Law Initiative. ROLI sponsors public service initiatives that give lawyers, judges and academics pro bono opportunities in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa.

But the Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative, which was created in 1990 after the collapse of the Soviet bloc of nations, provided the initial impetus to the ABA’s growing commitment to global pro bono work. CEELI gave members of the U.S. legal profession early opportunities to work closely with their colleagues in former Soviet bloc countries as they struggled to establish democratic forms of government and the legal systems they required.

Along with the early work of CEELI, the association further bolstered its commitment to pro bono when it adopted two amendments to Rule 6.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct (Voluntary Pro Bono Publico Service). In 1993, the ABA House of Delegates added an aspirational goal for U.S. lawyers to provide a minimum of 50 hours of pro bono work every year. And in 2002, the House added language to the rule stating: “Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.”

The growing interest among U.S. lawyers in doing pro bono work overseas can be traced to a number of factors. One is the fact that more U.S. firms have become global practices, and public service work is one of the ways in which firms can gain acceptance in foreign communities. “Look at where tomorrow’s business is. It’s not in the U.S., it’s not in old Europe—both of those markets are stagnant,” Lardent says. The business of the future “is in the rest of the world,” she adds.

Political events also have had an effect on the international outlook of lawyers. Starting with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, conflicts in the Balkans and Africa in the early 1990s, and continuing with events like the Arab Spring and democracy movements in Asia, lawyers in the United States and other developed nations have shown a growing interest in helping build democratic structures and representing individuals whose rights are in jeopardy.

The result today is a pro bono landscape that is “increasingly rich and textured,” but that exists along a vast geographic and regulatory divide, says Scott Cummings, the keynote speaker at the Harvard conference and faculty director of the Program in Public Interest Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law. It’s crucial, he says, that lawyers embarking on pro bono work overseas understand the host country’s history, culture and legal system.

Pro bono did not even exist as a concept or practice in some legal cultures when the movement began to pick up steam about a decade ago. Edwin Rekosh, the founder and president of PILnet: the Global Network for Public Interest Law, says it was particularly difficult to establish the concept of pro bono in China, where no words existed for it. He remembers a workshop where more than 50 lawyers from around the country tried to come up with a meaning for pro bono. After several unsuccessful attempts, they created a new term—lü shi or lü suo she hui ze ren—which means lawyers’ or law firms’ social responsibility.


Lawyers often obtain their pro bono assignments via such public interest entities as PILnet, the Vance Center for International Justice, Advocates for International Development and TrustLaw Connect. Such groups “are mining the world” for pro bono opportunities with NGOs, other nonprofits and local counsel, and then connecting them to interested law firms and their lawyers, says Suzanne E. Turner, a partner at the Dechert law firm in Washington, D.C., who chairs the firm’s pro bono practice.

Many of those entities maintain clearinghouses that help match up lawyers and pro bono projects. Depending on the needs of a project, lawyers might travel to the region where the work is or they may be able to do it from their offices. Travel can be expensive, and sometimes it involves thorny logistical and safety issues. “You can’t just parachute in and parachute out,” says Lisa Dewey, a partner at DLA Piper in Washington, D.C., who directs New Perimeter, the firm’s global pro bono initiative.

“We work very hard to put together teams of lawyers from around the globe,” Dewey notes. One of the goals of such work, she says, is to give lawyers the opportunity to “spend time on the ground and work with local partners hand in hand.”

Partners can range from NGOs and academic institutions to different government ministries, and she says the firm also has partnered with its corporate clients.


Pro bono initiatives now can be found on every continent except Antarctica. In South America, a Pro Bono Declaration of the Americas launched in 2008 now has more than 500 signatories in 21 countries that have committed to undertake at least 20 hours of pro bono work per lawyer every year.

In Asia, PILnet was “overwhelmed with response” in May when it put on an inaugural Asian pro bono forum in Hong Kong, Rekosh says. Most of the 180 participants were from NGOs, law firms, law schools and other entities in Hong Kong and mainland China, he adds.

In Nigeria, which has Africa’s largest economy but also vast numbers of people living in poverty, the government itself has begun to take a role in addressing unmet legal needs. About 120 law firms recently signed up for a program set up by the Lagos State Ministry of Justice to provide free legal services for underserved individuals.

The rising global pro bono movement leaves some wondering whether the legal needs of the poor and disadvantaged in the United States are being compromised.

But Mary K. Ryan, a partner at Nutter McClennen & Fish in Boston who chairs the ABA’s pro bono committee, says that does not appear to be the case, because significant numbers of U.S. lawyers are active in pro bono work in this country every day, and there’s plenty of need both here and abroad.

Setting up an effective pro bono project in another country takes a great deal of preparation, Ryan notes, “but with the right opportunities and right matches, there is tremendous opportunity for benefit.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Doing Good Goes Global: Growing numbers of U.S. lawyers are doing pro bono work in other countries.”

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