Expanding In-House Lawyers’ Horizons with Pro Bono Legal Opportunities
On 30 March 2017, Star Anise’s Managing Director, Annie Tang, had the honour of moderating a seminar to HKCCA members at Davis Polk & Wardwell’s offices on the topic of “Pro Bono Legal Opportunities: Expand your horizons by taking up new professional challenges and helping others to access justice”. The panel speakers consisted of in-house counsels: Davyd Wong (KPMG) and Sarah Oliver (BNP Paribas) and Director of Claims of Aon Risk Solutions, Specialty Broking, Evelyn Yan.
The seminar covered the following key areas to assist in-house lawyers in getting involved with pro bono legal work.
Here’s a brief outline of the areas discussed:
Meaning of Pro Bono Legal Assistance
Pro bono Legal Assistance means “the provision of free legal services that a qualified legal professional provides to poverty-stricken clients, non-profit groups or charitable organisations. This means legal advice assistance or representation”.
Davyd strongly felt that since Solicitors qualified in Hong Kong have a valuable skillset, they should use their specialist skills to contribute to those in need. Although in-house lawyers are subject to the Hong Kong Law Society regulations (“Law Society”), there are ample opportunities for in-house counsel to do valuable legal work on a pro bono basis (subject to regulatory and insurance requirements mentioned below). Sarah added that this work is also of benefit to the lawyers themselves, as it enables them to gain experience in new and varied areas of law.
Regulatory Issues and Insurance Issues
One of the main obstacles for practicing solicitors acting on a pro bono basis and on an individual basis is the need to maintain professional indemnity insurance and to comply with other statutory requirements for solicitors in practice. Under the Legal Practitioners’ Ordinance (Cap 159) and the Solicitors (Professional Indemnity) Rules (Cap 159M), solicitors who hold themselves out in practice must maintain indemnity and comply with other professional obligations. At present, the Law Society insurance scheme is limited to law firms so you cannot maintain the required indemnity unless you are part of a law firm. Therefore in-house lawyers cannot currently sign off on legal advice or represent clients other than their employer unless an exemption has been obtained from the Law Society. Evelyn explained that in-house lawyers wishing to apply for exemption from the Law Society can obtain professional indemnity insurance to support their application. Advice on what and how to obtain this insurance is available from an insurance broker such as Aon (whose subsidiary company, Essar Insurance Services Limited, manages the Professional Indemnity Scheme under the LPO) which has helped NGO clients obtain such insurance.
In the absence of obtaining the exemption however, in-house lawyers can partner with lawyers in private practice to deliver pro bono services to clients. This is encouraged as it also provides opportunities for collaboration between in-house counsel and solicitors in private practice to the benefit of the community.
Current Options and in-house programs
Sarah discussed how implementing a pro bono program from scratch requires both management and team support as well as working closely with the organisation’s CSR team (if there is one in place). She also mentioned that identifying the right NGOs or charities to partner with and to provide such assistance to is also key and cultivating a working relationship with them in the long term is important. In-house lawyers could provide training, education and guidance to such organisations, short of direct legal advice or representation. For actual legal representation and advocacy matters, in-house lawyers would need to partner with a law firm that is registered with the Hong Kong Law Society. Under such a scenario, the lay client or the NGO would be a direct client of the law firm and not of the in-house counsel.
Future Developments: selling the dream
Clearly, the speakers are passionate about giving back to society and were very kind to contribute their time to preparing for and speaking on this panel. The audience was given the following immediate options on how they could get involved in pro bono initiatives:
- Davyd founded an organization called The Public Interest Law Society which is an independent non-profit organization established in Hong Kong with charitable status (http://www.pilas.org.hk/about-us/). The organization has been actively bringing the key players together to advance the goal of enabling lawyers to provide direct, pro bono legal assistance to vulnerable individuals in Hong Kong. Through their projects, they have been trying to provide systemic methods to facilitate access to justice and legal representation to the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in their community. The organization is also working with the Society for Community Organisation (SOCO) to pilot and establish a legal centre in Sham Shui Po. While it is in the early stages, PILAS and SOCO need funding, resources and volunteers.
- The HKCCA is arranging a Sub-Committee on Pro Bono which will be aimed at giving in house counsel a platform to facilitate, collaborate and engage members in pro bono work. The sub-committee will look at resource development and advocacy from an in-house perspective.
- Attendees and all those interested are encouraged to speak further to any panellists to get ideas on how they can assist. Since the panel discussion, Annie, Davyd and Sarah have been approached by in-house lawyers who are aspiring pro bono volunteers for ideas on how to get involved. We encourage you to do the same.
The Law Society of Hong Kong granted 1.5 CPDs for attendees who required CPDs.
This article has been written for reference purposes only and is not representing itself as legal advice. We thank and acknowledge the contributions of Davyd, Sarah and Evelyn to the content of both the seminar and this article.