By Al Lim, Yale-NUS ’19 – See bio
“The good lawyer is not the man who has an eye to every side and angle of contingency, and qualifies all his qualifications, but who throws himself on your part so heartily, that he can get you out of a scrape.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
What’s the difference between a lawyer and a vampire? No, the answer is not that vampires only suck blood at night. For that fact, we can thank ‘pro bono’.
Bust out those dusty tomes of history for a brand new chapter is in writing. The 1st Southeast Asian Pro Bono Conference in Vientiane, Lao PDR at the end of September was a milestone in debunking the apparent connection between lawyers and vampires.
The conference, held at the Lane Xang Hotel, brought together individuals from over twenty countries. Key speeches and activities ranged from discussions about the reasons for pro bono, to the current conditions and challenges facing pro bono and legal aid in Southeast Asia.
My experience in the lead-up to the conference was enlightening, ironically, in how unknown or nigh on taboo pro bono is in the legal education world. I was tasked with making the preliminary evaluation of sponsorship applications from regional law students hoping to attend the conference. The questions were largely about each student’s experience in the Clinical Legal Education (CLE) program at their respective university. The majority of the answers defining pro bono were directly extracted from Wikipedia or Google, unmasked by the quality of the English.
The novel nature of pro bono also became apparent when a Chinese delegate to the conference commented that in Chinese there was no specific word for the concept. This fact, she concluded, sheds light on the importance of expanding education and building bridges of awareness for pro bono across borders.
What is Pro Bono?
Before I go any further, ‘pro bono’ comes from the Latin phrase meaning “for the public good.” Pro bono work not only benefits the disadvantaged and hence the greater community, but also inculcates professional values in law students and junior lawyers. As a whole, this raises the status and profile of the national Bar or Law Society, especially in smaller countries such as the host country: Lao PDR.
Ms. Malathi Das, president of LAWASIA, raised several important issues surrounding pro bono work in her keynote speech, imparting her wealth of knowledge with a healthy dose of inspiration. She opened and closed with a thought experiment: if a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, did it make a sound? Throughout her speech, she emphasized how this often-unheard ‘sound’ represented the call of the marginalized and vulnerable individuals and communities in need of help. They need legal assistance, and in reflecting on the unique position of lawyers to provide that help, Ms. Malathi Das concluded: if nobody hears it [the tree], where were they?!
A Cup of Coffee
There was a great emphasis throughout the Conference on the potential for ideas and partnerships to arise just by going out for a simple “cup of coffee”.
This stemmed from Lewis Truong, country counsel for IBM Vietnam, who said that his relationship with BABSEA CLE and his work at the Viet Nam National Economic University started from a chance meeting with a lady working in BABSEA CLE’s Vietnamese office who told him what work she was doing and provided a liaison over a cup of coffee. This small invitation and chat turned into a partnership between IBM and BABSEA CLE that drove the Clinical Legal Education Initiative in the Viet Nam National Economic University – Law Faculty forward to what it is today.
Where is Pro Bono today?
The current position of pro bono in Southeast Asian companies as well as in global multinational corporations (MNC’s), including firms such as IBM, Freehills LLP and DLA Piper, was assessed and discussed. One of the largest international law firms that presented was Baker and McKenzie. Their representative, Dr. Siriporn Allapach, stated that community service, diversity and inclusion, and sustainability formed the fundamental philosophy behind the company’s pro bono work. Hence, pro bono forms a large part of Baker and McKenzie’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program and provides much-needed legal assistance to those who would not otherwise have access to it.
Another stellar example of pro bono work being carried out “on the ground” is DLA Piper’s New Perimeter Initiative. 224 Global DLA Piper lawyers contributed a total of 15,395 hours just in 2011, ameliorating many pressing legal issues for communities in need. The Initiative incorporates a truly global perspective, from increasing access to justice for thousands of rural Namibians to drafting new legislation against domestic violence together with the Peruvian Multiparty Parliamentary Women’s Caucus.
Speed Dating with Lawyers?
At the end of the first day, there was an optional networking session, speed dating style. This session had two people pair up randomly, just like at speed-dating. However, the conversation always had a structure, as this session was only filled with lawyers. It would start off with the Lao greeting, “Sa-bai-dee?” Then, each couple had to find three things they had in common with each other. These were four minute sessions, after which each person moved four places to the right. Sitting down awkwardly across from someone you have never spoken to before and spilling your life story can be fun… sometimes. I loved having people guess my nationality. Not one person was able to guess it correctly, even my fellow countrymen/women. I met some delegates from the Law Society of Singapore and from BABSEA CLE Singapore, which was quite cool. I enjoyed hearing about their pro bono experiences in Singapore and emerged grateful to have survived such an awkward shindig (those words are quite awkward themselves).
Three for One, One for Three
The three main groups that attended the conference took away different things, specific to their profession or paradigm. In working with universities on pro bono initiatives, lawyers could raise their profile (in an impactful and sustainable manner), and ensure employee satisfaction. Conversely, university law faculties and students would be able to support vulnerable communities and populations, share in an opportunity to generate new ideas on how to deal with pressing issues, and work closely with practicing lawyers. The third group, the civil society delegation, would benefit from the expansion of legal services. Most importantly, all three groups would be better able to facilitate and increase ‘access to justice’ in marginalized communities, promote a pro bono ethos and develop the skills necessary to increase the effectiveness of their outreach programs and efforts. Ultimately, pro bono was found to be a mutually beneficial route that had justice at its core.
So, Now What?
The results of the Pro Bono Conference are not easily quantifiable, but large problems are solved by solutions, which must first come from ideas. This conference promoted creativity, incubated ideas and encouraged networking to build purposeful, positive partnerships.
The human consciousness matures from self-interest, to global interest, to an interest in comprehension, or in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people’. The conference delegates started, and are continuing, to talk about ideas.
So, there may be vampires out there, but that’s totally not the point. In all professions, there are always vampires in the business of being pale, scaring people, and sucking blood. Check out Bram Stoker’s classic, or for bonus points spot the vampire in Forster’s A Passage to India. They basically create a hullaballoo to ensure that the non-vampires (non-werewolves too) who are helping people are always kept behind the scenes.
There are world changers in every profession, and from what I’ve seen of this international collaboration, things might actually get done around here. Here’s to changing the world—nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something.
Quick Shout-Out to my co-worker at BABSEA CLE, part of the organizing delegation of the 1st Southeast Asia Pro Bono Conference and University of Queensland Law Student, Carly Chenoweth, for helping me edit this post!