Putting pro bono at the heart of a rewarding career
As a law student today in Hong Kong, we know your main priority is the most immediate one - just getting through law school! Even at the best of times, it’s a huge investment in time and money with no guarantee of success. This year, however, the challenge has been multiplied by many orders of magnitude due to the social unrest last semester and now, the disruption caused by the coronavirus.
But it is at these very critical and challenging times that you might reflect on why you wanted to read law and what it means to be a lawyer today. Was it because you wanted to help people and to serve a meaningful role in one of society’s most important institutions? If it is, then I encourage you to take steps now to realise this purposeful mission by getting involved in pro bono work early. Whether you are a law student , a trainee, an associate in private practice , an in-house counsel , or a pupil barrister , there are a plethora of opportunities to engage in pro bono work right now.
When I say this to students, however, the reply is often that they just want to make money and get a “return on their investment”. If this is how you'd reply, then I need to tell you that you’ve made the wrong choice. Investment banking is a much more profitable endeavour than the law, even if you’re bad at it. Though, it is not too late. You could finish the law degree and apply for a job in an investment bank rather than doing PCLL and going into legal practice.
This is not to say that money is not important. Indeed, finding a good paying job is to be encouraged. But like many things it’s a question of degree. If all you want to know is your professional endeavours as a lawyer will pay you enough to live comfortably, then let me give you that assurance now. As a lawyer in Hong Kong, you will be the beneficiary of a socially sanctioned professional monopoly which means you will get just that . Now, while there is no guarantee of absolute success if you apply yourself, the odds are in your favour and you will earn many multiples of the average monthly income in Hong Kong. Just go check out the latest salary surveys . This level of income will allow you to repay all your student loans, and to buy your parents a nice gift every month for putting you through all those years of school.
Leave Procrastination Until Tomorrow
So now that you know that you’ll be able to earn a comfortable living as a lawyer, the other commonly heard argument for not doing pro bono early in your career is that you can leave it until “tomorrow”. Say, when you make partner.
But this not just a bad excuse, it is also short-changing yourself as a lawyer.
Firstly, I need to tell you that this argument relies on the false premise that life gets easier as you get more senior or that you have more control of what you do. While the latter is true to some extent, the former is not. As you get more senior, and as you get older, the burdens get heavier and the vicissitudes of life cut deeper. Ask any partner now if they’re working harder or less than when they were an associate. Sadly, there is a reason why depression, stress, and anxiety are at much higher rates in the senior ranks of our profession than at the junior end – and it’s not because us oldies are having more holidays!
Secondly, the hard truth of this approach means that you would not be starting any pro bono work for well in excess of a decade. In today’s cut-throat legal world, ten years plus is considered a fast track to partnership. And, by that time, commencing pro bono work as a partner actually becomes harder because your seniority will lead colleagues and peers to question the true motives behind this sudden new found interest. For instance, they may ask is it due to a forthcoming retirement announcement, or are you being forced to do this because of a lack of paying work?
Thirdly, leaving pro bono work until late in your career denies you the benefits that doing such cases brings to you and your career as a lawyer. Personally, I have found that doing pro bono matters alongside my commercial practice has given me numerous mutually reinforcing benefits - but my editor has already told me there is a word limit to this article. So let me just list out only a few of reasons why below.
All About You
As nearly all of you will enter into commercial practice, be aware that in the practice of commercial law our clients are often companies and the cases often revolve around large sums of money, so it can be hard to see the direct impact of the law or your advice on individual lives. On the other hand, in pro bono matters the client’s very livelihood can hang in the balance pending your advice. While this is an enormous pressure it is also enormously rewarding, on a human level, to see the correlation and to feel the sense of accomplishment from directly helping another person.
Then consider that as you specialise in a certain practice area, which the law firms will want you to do, your skills will sharpen in a narrower and narrower area of the law. Pro bono cases will allow you to learn and maintain a wider set of professional skills and to engage in different areas of legal practice more relevant to individuals. That’s why I term it “community law”.
Therefore, leaving it late in your career to start pro bono work also makes it more difficult to pick up and keep this wide range of skills. It’s just like changing practice areas. Much harder to do when you’re 20 years PQE than when you’re 2 years PQE. And like in your commercial practice, the rewards of having years of experience under your belt also opens up more rewarding opportunities as time goes by. In the non-profit space, having the right volunteering skills, relationships, and experience will put you in good stead for board roles as you become more senior. Leaving it until the last stage of your career leaves you at a competitive disadvantage for these kinds of valuable openings.
"in pro bono matters the client’s very livelihood can hang in the balance pending your advice"
Another aspect of the specialist focus in your commercial practice is that as you specialise, you will encounter more people like you and fewer from other walks of life. On the other hand, pro bono gives you more networking opportunities and more interactions with different kinds of people. This is true both internally and externally. By participating in your firm’s pro bono program or taking on pro bono cases, you will work with colleagues in different practice groups, departments or even offices. This can often lead to new friends and more internal referrals for commercial work. You’re much more likely to call a colleague for assistance on fee paying work when you’ve had some interaction with them before, as opposed to asking someone listed in the internal directory but with whom you have never spoken. Externally, by engaging in pro bono work, you will meet people in government, charities, and clients who also do pro bono work. No need to elaborate on what happens when you work together with such clients on a pro bono matter – let’s just say the business sparks keep flying long after the pro bono case has closed.
Finally, I want to add one more important reason for doing pro bono work on a regular basis. That is your sanity. Lawyers are under immense pressure at work, which can then also flow into your personal and family life thereby affecting your most important relationships. The antidote to this kind of work stress is volunteerism. The science is in, and by doing volunteer work, you will see the very real and human impact your legal skills have on people’s lives. It will give a new appreciation of what it means to be a lawyer and the value of your work to society. This will make you a more resilient professional and a fuller person in every context , and the result is that you stay in the law longer, rather than burning and crashing out after only a few years.
"The antidote to...work stress is volunteerism."
Fulfilling the Promise of the Law
If all those reasons why pro bono work is great for you and your career are not enough, I can also remind you that in today’s Hong Kong, there is a huge gap between those with money, and those without which means many people can’t afford private legal services . This will be exacerbated by the current public health crisis, and in a way that we will not understand fully for many months and years to come. By working pro bono in community law to deliver equal access to justice, we will ensure that those who suffer, whether directly or indirectly as a result of this pandemic, can get help and fair access to assistance from the government. Indeed, our success as a civilised society depends on our ability to achieve this , as it is a fundamental aspect to maintaining the rule of law in Hong Kong .
So, I hope you can see that by doing pro bono work you are making a conscious choice to fulfil the full potential of the law as a career and as a profession. And by getting in early and then staying consistently involved throughout your career you will find it is like compounding interest. The rewards keep growing much, much greater and faster, if you keep investing regularly.
This article draws from the online lecture to law students given on 15 April 2020, by General Counsel at Star Anise group and founder of Pro Bono HK, Davyd Wong, and Senior Associate of Allen & Overy, Nathan Colless, as part of the "Ethical Lawyering for Public Interest" course run by Professor Richard Wu and Principal Lecturer Karen Kong at University of Hong Kong. The views expressed are the author’s alone. Thoughts, feedback, and comments welcome.
Endnotes, for further reading and action
 Lord David Neuberger, “Judges, Access to Justice, the Rule of Law and the Court of Final Appeal under “One Country Two Systems”, Seminar at University of Hong Kong (13 September 2017). Accessible Here