There is a very interesting Gazette piece on pro bono by Grania Langdon-Down. It raises a number of issues. One is the way in which Corporate firms appear to be reframing their pro bono activity away from ‘activity’ and towards ‘impact’, partly (it seems) in response to a downturn in levels of volunteer hours.
James Daffurn, head of corporate responsibility at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, makes a number of interesting points: ‘While we would like to see our volunteering hours rise, we are far more interested in the impact of our work.’ He then goes on to say: “However, when it comes to valuing pro bono work, it is often a case of comparing apples with pears, he adds. ‘There is a real need for a standardised approach: many firms still use full charge-out rates when putting a value on their pro bono efforts, rather than adopting an internationally recognised standard where pro bono work is valued using discounted rates which aim to reflect the cost to the firm of providing the service.’” Thus moving from saying impact is important to suggesting what they need is a standard calculation of input because he is keenly aware of the difficulty of really measuring impact.
An interesting question is what is that need to quantify there for? One can imagine that if firms were simply aiming to provide some more ‘access to justice’ then as a matter of efficiency it would be useful to have a calculation of what it costs the firm to provide its volunteer programmes. It could then compare those costs against providing actual funding for (say) a Law Centre (as some firms do). If providing funding to a Law Centre is more efficient then it might make more sense to do that and have their own lawyers earn the fees that fund that work. Those kinds of calculation could be made in private and inform decisions about pro bono activity. In terms of helping actual clients it would almost certainly be more efficient.
Of course, firms motivations for doing pro bono are more complicated than that: potentially there are educational and morale benefits in such programmes, quite aside from the substantive benefit to any clients of the pro bono lawyers. There are also marketing benefits.
The need for measures of impact or input seems to be driven by a ‘need’ to compare firms against each other. This is why we see the costification of pro bono work whereby the number of hours worked pro bono is multiplied by hourly charging rates (sometimes actual sometimes a notional blended rate). In economic terms this is the wrong approach; it is the opportunity cost of doing pro bono work which would have to be costed – the value of the work that is forgone by doing pro bono is almost certainly less than the chargeable hours spent on pro bono. It would be genuinely interesting to think about the impact of pro bono programmes, though often one would be comparing apples and pears: funding a local Law centre worker has a quite different impact to conducting a death row case and that would be different to helping Scope raise funds with a new kind of bond (as Linklaters and Weil Gotshal & Manges have done).
Developing international standards of inputs might help drive competition between firms to show who does the most pro bono, of course (although it would inevitably lead to some gaming of the figures). One approach would be to publish hours per partner and employees. Maybe the sensible approach is to accept that the data is going to be rough and ready and encourage firms towards a calculation of inputs (hours time hourly rates applied to the actual fee earner) against revenues. It is not perfect but it perhaps provides a more meaningful indication of the relative size of a pro bono commitment within a firm. It would also provide an interesting comparison between the size of firm pro bono programmes and others. The Gazette piece has the College of Law’s pro bono contribution costed at £500,000. I’d wager that as a proportion of the College’s not inconsiderable revenue that is a considerably more sizeable contribution than most firms. They have an incentive to do it because it helps the employability of their students; but it is a contribution not to be sneezed at.