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SEP 07, 2016

MENA makes its mark in pro bono

The TrustLaw Index of Pro Bono shows MENA legal firms are appreciating the importance of work in this sphere.

The importance of pro bono work is gaining recognition in MENA law firms, as their response to the TrustLaw Index of Pro Bono, Thomson Reuters Foundation’s pro bono legal survey, indicates. The Index shows pro bono globally is thriving, and the Middle East is starting to make its mark.

“At the Thomson Reuters Foundation we firmly believe that information is key to achieving social progress,” said Nicholas Glicher, Legal Director at the Foundation. “All our activities are geared towards ensuring that organizations and individuals have the tools, data, connections and resources available to make informed decisions and have a positive impact in the communities in which they operate or live. Now in its third year, the TrustLaw Index of Pro Bono was born of this thinking.”

The 2016 edition of the Index was launched on July 27. Its findings show that lawyers at respondent firms undertook more than 2.5 million hours of pro bono over the past year, which works out at just under 40 hours of pro bono per lawyer, per year. “Forty hours is a significant amount of time to devote to noble causes and is an achievement that should be applauded,” said Glicher.

The TrustLaw index of pro bono by the numbers

The UK, US and Australia traditionally lead pro bono markets but last year China and South Africa reported higher average pro bono hours per lawyer than anywhere else in the world, bar the US. “China’s growth in pro bono is remarkable: +211% since the TrustLaw Index began in 2014,” said Monique Villa, Thomson Reuters Foundation CEO and Founder of TrustLaw. “NGOs in China face many challenges and this pro bono support is instrumental in helping them navigate increasingly complex legal frameworks. Only 10 years ago, pro bono in China was a niche practice, but today the country has overtaken the amount of hours in England and other countries with solid pro bono traditions.”

MENA gets on track
This year Index submissions were received from 33 law firms with 45 offices in 17 countries across the Middle East and Africa; last year 25 firms responded. “The fact that more firms are tracking their pro bono engagement levels and are willing to share these figures reflects the increasing importance assigned to pro bono,” said Glicher.

Firms that have not historically had a strong tradition of providing free legal assistance are now recording pro bono hours, making more informed decisions on the allocation of their pro bono resources as a result. This is a great unforeseen benefit of the Index.

The Index mapped the development of pro bono throughout the Middle East and Africa – and had sufficient data to focus in on jurisdictions like Qatar and the UAE.

All five Index submissions from firms with lawyers based in Qatar were provided by international law firms and despite strong pro bono contributions from partners, there was a drop in lawyer engagement from an average of 24.5 pro bono hours per lawyer in 2015, to 11.6 hours in 2016.

The presence of many international law firms in the UAE has introduced the practice of pro bono and although it is not widespread, local firms and legal services are taking notice. Much of the demand comes from foreign workers, and this is addressed in part by the Dubai International Finance Centre Academy of Law’s pro bono program, in which 100 practitioners from 43 registered local law firms participate.

Glicher said there is a great enthusiasm for pro bono in MENA, but it is not without challenges. “While most international firms have robust pro bono infrastructure, foreign qualified lawyers often find it difficult to support domestic pro bono matters, which typically require local legal advice. Domestic and regional firms, meanwhile, have also taken the initiative to develop standalone pro bono practices – firms like Saed Karajah & Partners in Jordan are a case in point.”

Helping refugees
One of the key focus areas for pro bono efforts in 2016 was immigration, refugees and asylum, with over 41% of respondent firms indicating they worked on these projects this year, compared to 28% last year and 24% the year before.

“We are seeing a worrying increase in the number of migrants illegally detained, including unaccompanied children,” said Villa. “Lawyers are stepping up to provide life-changing support, and this is undoubtedly a beautiful story of solidarity in action.”

Glicher added that law firms are responding to the challenges faced by refugees with great success. “Pro bono lawyers have provided vital support in destination countries for migration such as Greece – from advising asylum seekers on the ground, to supporting advocacy efforts for more robust laws and policies that protect refugees. However, the root causes of migration, including economic distress and human rights abuses in origin countries across the Middle East and North Africa, call for an equally robust legal response and this is where TrustLaw’s network of lawyers will continue to play an instrumental role.”

Tools of engagement
Responses to the Index came from over 130 law firms large and small, some that are new to the space and others that have been offering a pro bono service for many years. Perhaps surprisingly, lawyers at small firms performed an average of 41.7 hours of pro bono over the past 12 months, while those at large firms performed an average of 35.1 hours. Medium-size firms performed 27.7 hours.

To encourage more lawyers to participate in pro bono, some firms are factoring it into appraisals and compensation, and introducing targets. It is worth noting that mandatory and aspirational targets brought significantly different results; firms with mandatory targets recorded an average of 65.5 pro bono hours compared to 31.7 hours where the target was aspirational.

In conclusion
The main objective of the TrustLaw Index of Pro Bono was to provide vital information to firms to help them create successful pro bono programs and to present benchmarking data from a wide breadth of jurisdictions to offer lawyers a better understanding of the global pro bono space. Now that information is out there, it is up to all firms – including those in the Middle East and North Africa – to get the greatest impact from their pro bono work. 

The Index of Pro Bono is an adjunct to the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s TrustLaw service – a global initiative that facilitates pro bono legal support for social enterprises and non-profits in some 170 countries around the world. Through TrustLaw, the Foundation works with 600 firms around the world, including both international and domestic firms with offices throughout the Middle East and North Africa.