Oct. 31 - Advancing Pro Bono in Europe, Atanas Politov, Director for Europe, PILnet

In honor of National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, Pro Bono Net has lined up a variety of guest bloggers from law firms, legal aid organizations and elsewhere to share their pro bono ideas and experiences. This post comes from Atanas Politov, the director for Europe at PILnet: The Global Network for Public Interest Law.

I've worked in Bulgaria, Hungary, and the U.S., and since 2005 I've been responsible for managing the European pro bono efforts of PILnet: The Global Network for Public Interest Law. As a lawyer who has observed pro bono practice on both sides of the Atlantic, I can tell you that the contrast between the two is stark. But that's beginning to change.

Pro bono is such a standard part of U.S. legal practice that it might be surprising for American lawyers to realize that organized, institutionalized pro bono practice was almost unheard of in continental Europe until about ten years ago-and even today it is just beginning to find its footing. How could those progressive Europeans have missed the boat that way? In fact, it's exactly because of progressive social policies that pro bono failed to develop for so long. To a great extent European governments still strongly support public legal services for the poor and disadvantaged and legal aid systems for both criminal and civil law. Pro bono simply hasn't been thought necessary.

When I moved back to Europe after studying and working in the U.S., I was thinking that Europe could be fertile ground for pro bono. A few years later at PILnet, we decided that advancing pro bono would be one of the main thrusts of our work here. In 2007 we held a small conference in Budapest that we optimistically christened the European Pro Bono Forum. Even before then we had begun to develop clearinghouses to help bring together private lawyers and NGOs that needed legal help.

The impact of PILnet's pro bono efforts has grown dramatically over the last decade. We now have pro bono clearinghouses in Hungary, Russia, and China, and a cross-border one that focuses on Europe. In 2010 alone, they placed 254 matters assisting 121 NGOs from more than 20 countries, facilitating roughly 11,000 hours of legal services valued at about $4.5 million. And we've formed partnerships with other pro bono clearinghouses in the Czech Republic, France, Ireland, Latvia, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Romania. A new association in Germany called Pro Bono Deutschland will be established by the end of the year, which is very positive sign.

Still, pro bono in European remains quite different than its U.S. counterpart. Certain issues that are urgent in Europe-immigration, refugee issues, the rights of minorities such as Roma, environmental concerns-need much more support from pro bono lawyers. During a recent trip to Milan,Italy, I met with seven law firms, none of which had undertaken any immigration or refugee work-and this in a country with large communities of immigrants. So much more could be done if law firms were more active.

Human rights cases are common pro bono fare in the U.S. and they're becoming more frequent here. One way we're doing that is through that conference we started five years ago. The European Pro Bono Forum is now the premiere event for the pro bono movement. Next month in Berlin, Germany, the Forum will welcome more than 300 leading figures from bar organizations, law firms, corporations, NGOs, and universities. By bringing together a growing and influential community committed to pro bono, the Forum has played a major role in building support cross the continent. Immigration will be one of the key topics this year, so we hope that can help forge a greater interest and eventually more pro bono assistance in that area.

While state subsidized legal aid remains the European standard, rising economic strain is putting pressure on government-funded social projects. No one here thinks pro bono can or should take the place of state-funded legal aid, even on civil matters, but there is an expanding awareness that pro bono legal services can supplement formal legal aid systems in vital ways. It's not the same picture you have in the U.S., but already it's making a major impact on how European lawyers think about their place in society.

Atanas Politov is director of PILnet's Budapest office and is responsible for managing PILnet's pro bono efforts. He has developed large-scale legal aid reform projects in Bosnia Herzegovina and Serbia, coordinated PILnet's contributions to legal aid reform in other countries and has overseen the development of PILnet's pro bono clearinghouses in China, Hung,ary, Russia, and globally. Politov received legal training in his native Bulgaria and worked as a staff attorney for Bulgarian Lawyers for Human Rights. He subsequently received an LL.M. from Columbia Law School and is a former Fulbright Scholar.