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A South African law firm setting the pro bono pace

Sunday, November 05, 2006

  • By: Lourens Ackermann
  • Organization: Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs

Many law firms feel the need to fulfil their social obligations by providing some form of voluntary pro bono service. Now, for the first time in South Africa, the Cape Law Society (the US equivalent of a State Bar Association) requires that all of its members provide 24 hrs of pro bono services a year. Refusing to do so may amount to unprofessional conduct.

Needless to say, this initiative has been met with varying degrees of enthusiasm. No one has condemned it outright, many think it a good idea, most are sitting back and waiting for it to happen. But happen it won't, not without effort.

We decided to take up the challenge and commit each of our attorneys to 32 hours per attorney per calendar year. Would this work, asking each individual attorney to make a contribution?

So far the answer is yes, resoundingly so, and there is no reason to believe that we cannot, indeed, are not, building a model for pro bono that is unique given that everyone, from the chairman to the most junior member of the firm, does pro bono in the Cape Town office. Hours cannot be traded, nor is there a person or a committee who discharges the obligation on behalf of others, as happens in some firms. We have a clear policy, everyone rolls up their sleeves and mucks in.

We had to make a strategic decision when starting out. How were we going to organise this process and manage the many matters we anticipated.

We set up a dedicated pro bono office in Mitchells Plain, an impoverished township created by apartheid's policy of forced removals and situated on the harsh Cape Flats on Cape Town's outskirts. Cape Town is cosmopolitan and beautiful, first world; Mitchells Plain is desperately third world. It is in closing this divide by providing access to justice that we felt we could make a contribution.

And so we set out from our Mitchells Plain office to co-ordinate the firm's pro bono efforts, sifting through cases and assigning them to individual attorneys in the Cape Town office. In little more than a year our attorneys have dealt with about 250 matters and invested in excess of 2000 hrs. Every single attorney has done pro bono work, and some have far exceeded their 32 hour commitment.

Setting up office in Mitchells Plain was for largely practical reasons. The idea is to be as accessible as possible. Since most of our clients are either unemployed, or earn very little, the transport costs to our Cape Town offices some 20 miles away could make the difference between them seeking our assistance or not.

Experience has borne this out with the vast majority of our clients preferring to consult with our attorneys at our Mitchell's Plain Office. It is cheap (they often walk to the office), convenient and familiar territory for them. If, however, it is more convenient for the client to see us at our Cape Town office, then the consultation takes place there.

For those of you reading this who know nothing about South Africa it is perhaps helpful to point out that it has a legal system comparable to the best in the world and our commercial work, though on a smaller scale, is very similar to what you would do. This is only to say that our pro bono clients get excellent attorneys, who, because of the anomalies of the country can now - through the pro bono initiative - apply first world skills to third work problems.

Sceptics have insisted that this model can be dangerously disruptive to a busy commercial practice. A few days a year doesn't sound like much, but it has to fit in somewhere.

Yet it is precisely in meeting this challenge of "disruption" and "time" that we feel the essence of our pro bono philosophy lies. If everyone does it, everyone is affected, and it permeates the life of the firm, and becomes part of its culture. People are exposed to new realities, and gain new perspectives.

The point is, on the personal level, where lawyers interact with clients they would otherwise never meet, something more than law is being practised. Human connections are made in a society where these connections were long forbidden and fundamental changes are wrought because of these meetings. Small changes, to be sure, but cumulatively the affect can be enormous, both in law and in the greater rebuilding of a society.

We consider our pro bono effort a "work in progress", learning as we go along. We would be delighted to hear from law firms in the US, to learn from them, and share with them our experiences.

Written by Lourens Ackermann ( , Pro Bono Co-ordinator for Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs. Edward Nathan Sonnebergs is the merger, approved in September 2006, of Edward Nathan Friedlander and Sonnenberg Hoffmann Galombik, two of South Africa's leading commercial law firms. The merged entity created the largest African law firm.


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