Digital rights and fostering pro bono culture in Europe

Digital rights and fostering pro bono culture in Europe

By Atanas Politov, 12th January 2018

One of our aims at DFF is to assist digital rights activists in finding high-quality pro bono assistance for their legal work. Helping to foster a strong pro bono culture in Europe is important in that context, as it will enhance and enrich the pool of talented lawyers putting their skills towards advancing digital rights in the region.

For those who prefer their Latin served complete, “pro bono”, is short for “pro bono publicum”. The phrase translates as “for the public good”, referring to professional work undertaken on a voluntary basis and without payment. In the context of legal services, pro bono helps make legal services available to those who cannot afford lawyers.

Lawyers, much like doctors, are among the few professions that have been providing free professional advice for decades if not centuries. The globalisation of the legal market over the past 10 to 15 years has also brought changes to the way pro bono is practiced. All major global law firms, with offices in most capitals and financial centers in Europe, have appointed full time pro bono and/or corporate social responsibility professionals to run and manage their – now institutionalised – pro bono practice. Many law firms have also adopted pro bono policies that require or strongly encourage lawyers to do a minimum amount of pro bono work per year. While motivations for that may vary – from pure altruistic motives to retaining talent within the firm by making your lawyers happy, to business development reasons based on clients’ preferences ­– this creates a huge amount of resources, many of which are still untapped.

In Europe, most major law firms have a solid presence throughout the region. From Paris, Milan and Frankfurt, to Warsaw, Budapest and Moscow, dozens of global and local business law firms encourage their lawyers to do pro bono work. Over the past decade, several “brokerage” organisations, usually called pro bono clearinghouses, have been set up to serve as a bridge between the law firms and the pro bono clients, usually non-profit organizations. Most of the work done by law firms for those NGO clients concerns the NGOs’ own legal needs – DFF, for example, was registered and drew up its employment agreements with pro bono support from Dentons, and is developing its data retention and privacy policies with the assistance of DLA Piper.

In less frequent, but very powerful examples, corporate law firm lawyers also support NGO programmes, working with individual clients or groups of people. This type of direct assistance in for example litigation matters, is becoming more frequent in the UK, where a strong pro bono culture exists amongst barristers, but it is slowly becoming more accepted in the corporate law firm sphere as well. This is a positive development that we would like to help foster. Big law firms can bring an enormous boost in capacity to smaller litigators, be it in legal research, drafting, or thinking about (international) litigation strategies. What, considered in the broader context of a law firm’s overall time and manpower, is a relatively small investment can have significant impact when these efforts are connected with a dedicated digital rights litigator.

In light of the above, we have two invitations. To digital rights activists, let us know: if you had access to any lawyer or law firm of your choosing, who would that be? What would you ask their help for? To all European lawyers and law practices: if you want to support the fight for digital rights, get in touch!