In-house lawyers, “bashed up” by justice secretary Michael Gove over the issue of pro bono, should have an “open debate” about making it compulsory, the chair of the GC100 Group has said.
Graham Vinter, former general counsel of BG Group, said in-house lawyers should recognise that “there is a problem” over pro bono.
“I really don’t think the message has landed in terms of in-house lawyers and heads of legal departments,” Mr Vinter said.
He was speaking yesterday morning at a panel session on regulatory barriers to pro bono, held at the Law Society to mark the start of National Pro Bono Week.
Mr Vinter, whose organisation comprises general counsel at the top FTSE 100 companies, said the proportion of in-house solicitors involved in pro bono fell from 23% to 16% in only two years.
The figure of 16%, which came from Law Society research, was referred to by Mr Gove in his first speech as justice secretary.
“When it comes to investing in access to justice then it is clear to me that it is fairer to ask our most successful legal professionals to contribute a little more rather than taking more in tax from someone on the minimum wage,” Mr Gove said.
“I want to work with leaders in the profession to examine what the fairest way forward might be. But I cannot accept that the status quo is defensible.”
Describing in-house lawyers as being “roundly bashed up” by the justice secretary, Mr Vinter said he believed there was a “real issue” at stake.
“Larger US corporates really get behind pro bono and legal departments really support it. We should have an open debate about compulsory pro bono.”
Mr Vinter added that one leading GC required lawyers to carry out minimum hours of pro bono every year and made it part of their performance review.
Earlier Michael Napier, the Attorney General’s pro bono envoy, cited section 15 of the Legal Services Act and rule 4 of the solicitors Code of Conduct as potential regulatory barriers to pro bono work.
Paul Philip, chief executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), said the regulator would be looking at rule 4 as part of its review of the Handbook.
Dr Vanessa Davies, director general of the Bar Standards Board, said it was not clear whether the slump in pro bono work by in-house lawyers was business-driven.
She said that a failure to persuade the boards of companies that pro bono made a good contribution to corporate social responsibility could be part of the problem.
Paul Yates, head of pro bono at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in London, said he did not think there was a problem with primary legislation or the Code of Conduct, but with the SRA’s guidance notes.
He said there was a “long list of factors” firms were meant to take into account, meaning that a “well-organised, well-run pro bono group” was much more likely to fail to meet them that an “amateurish, badly run” scheme.