Developing pro bono services in the professional legal community

Since 2001, Brazil’s Instituto Pro Bono has worked to persuade individual lawyers and law firms to provide free legal services for nonprofit organizations and people in need.

There is a great division of wealth in Brazil, leading also to an unequal system of justice.  Many states do not have public defense departments, and thus they offer free aid only to those who can prove a certain level of poverty (for which the threshold is very low).  At Instituto Pro Bono’s inception, the Brazilian Bar Association considered the practice of law firms granting free legal assistance to be illegal and unethical, thus leaving the rest of Brazil’s poor without access to legal assistance.

A small group of people from the legal community organized a seminar in 2001 to discuss how to promote pro bono legal services in Brazil.  Taking inspiration from Daniel Grunfeld, then president and CEO of the Public Counsel Law Center in Los Angeles, this group undertook a variety of steps in order to create an organization that would work to legalize pro bono activity, to institutionalize the ethic within the legal profession, and to create an efficient system for bringing together pro bono lawyers with clients in need.  In order to accomplish any of their goals, this small group knew they needed to gain the support of leading members of the Brazilian legal profession.  Thus they invited top lawyers and professors to join in their effort.  Eventually, 37 legal professionals joined together in 2001 to create the Instituto Pro Bono of Sao Paulo.

Building credibility within the legal profession was the first important step.  One way they did this was to contact U.S. law firms and nonprofit organizations that could provide important information and contacts.  But perhaps most importantly, they needed to gain the support of the Sao Paulo State Bar Association (which had deemed pro bono work to be illegal).  The Sao Paulo State Bar created the Pro Bono Working Group, composed of members of the Ethics and Discipline Tribunal as well as board members of the IPB.  After forming a coalition with some of the largest law firms in the country and with several prominent jurists, they began to press the Bar for the regulation of pro bono services.  As a result of meetings and deep discussion, the state bar association enacted the Pro Bono Resolution, legalizing pro bono practice in the state of Sao Paulo.

The next step after legalization was to publicize their efforts, thus letting lawyers know how to volunteer and letting NGO’s know how they could benefit.  As a part of this, they created a website (www.probono.org.br) where people can learn about pro bono work, and where lawyers can fill out a volunteer form.  In addition to the web site, they did as much networking as possible in order to spread the pro bono concept.  They used several arguments when persuading law firms to adopt institutional pro bono policies.  A successful argument highlights the economic advantage to the firm- first, pro bono work can increase the job satisfaction level of a lawyer, thus increasing her level of productivity; second, pro bono work can positively improve their image to potential clients.  After gaining the support of some large films, IPB used this to reinforce their approaches to other firms.

Seminars and conferences are fundamental for spreading the idea of pro bono work, especially in countries like Brazil, where this type of volunteer work is not a tradition.  On December 4 and 5, 2003, IPB organized the third International Pro Bono Seminar.  In order to build a new consensus in their legal community in favor of pro bono work, they gathered a highly credible network of support for the conference (both local and international); they created opportunities for local law firms to connect with international guests who understood pro bono work; they offered practical sessions to teach about this concept.  In Brazil, the Pro Bono Seminar resulted in a significant increase in the number of volunteer lawyers and law firms and increased the effectiveness of pro bono work being done.  It also resulted in the announcement by the national bar association of its intention to reduce regulatory barriers to pro bono service across the entire country.

The work of Instituto Pro Bono has been immensely successful in Brazil, not only having made more efficient use of individual voluntary commitment, but even creating a new ethic, a new attitude within the legal profession.  According to this organization, anyone who intends to organize a group such as IPB must discuss how pro bono legal activity can increase access to social justice and can emphasize the fundamental ethics of volunteerism and legal social responsibility.


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