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Be prepared for pro bono

Pro bono work is becoming more popular among legal practitioner communities across the globe, as practitioners look to try something different than regular chargeable work, reach outside their comfort zone and give back. But it raises many challenges in practice, such as: How can you set up a sustainable and effective pro bono program? Are there laws or issues in your or other jurisdictions that you need to know about?

These were some of the points discussed in a session titled ‘For the Global Good: A How–to Guide for Pro Bono IP Work Around the World’ yesterday, which was moderated by Rose Hickman Rigole of Strategy IP. The panelists provided an overview of the legal framework in their countries, the level of pro bono work, and their firms’ pro bono initiatives. Referral work can come from networking with clients, colleagues in other jurisdictions, legal charities and NGOs. PILnet and TrustLaw were two networks mentioned.

The panelists advised having the right resources, management and expertise in your firm to set up or take on pro bono work. There are many ways to do this. “Start small,” David Aylen of Gowling WLG said enthusiastically. “You may crash due to lack of commitment if you take on a huge project. Look for ones that encourage team building or are educational in nature and slowly build it up,” he added. Employee engagement is the key, according to Eugene Low of Hogan Lovells. Julia Hopf of Spoor & Fisher also participated.

Low said junior lawyers, for example, should be allowed to take ownership of the project. “Find out what they are interested in, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be in IP,” he said. Formalize the initiative, develop a pro bono policy, and manage client expectations. Registrants also learned of resources to help with implementing programs. For example, INTA has resources such as the Pro Bono Toolkit and Pro Bono Resource Guide on its website.

Aside from prioritizing fee-paying work, legal practitioners can also find that it is not straightforward to take on pro bono work due to regulatory issues. This is particularly true for foreign-qualified lawyers in countries such as Russia, Japan and China. However, Aylen said this does not hinder such lawyers utilizing their skills in society. Interestingly, he also said that the tax authorities in Russia consider pro bono work as taxable, but he hopes this will cease to be the case soon.

Speakers agreed that their clients do not mind that they engage in pro bono work, provided it does not affect their other work. Some clients may well have corporate social responsibility initiatives in which they are happy to get your help. “Our clients even ask us about the pro bono work we have done each year,” said Aylen.

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