Requiring firms to do pro bono work

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I read earlier in the week that the Attorney-General is considering requiring law firms who win government contracts to do a certain amount of pro bono work (ie legal work which is in the public interest performed for free or at a discounted rate) as a condition of the contract.

I’m sympathetic to the idea of encouraging lawyers to do pro bono work but I hope that the Attorney-General and the Minister of Justice take some economic (as well as legal) advice before implementing any new policy in this area.  In particular I worry about what will happen if the government ends up specifying a list of approved clients who firms on government contracts must do pro bono work for.  There could be at least two unintended consequences of such a policy:

  1. Depending on how the policy is designed, firms who already do pro bono work may have an incentive to switch from providing services to their existing pro bono clients to providing services to clients on the approved list.  That is, the effect of the policy may simply be to change the organisations that firms do pro bono work for rather than to increase the amount for pro bono work done.
  2. Firms may charge the government higher rates to absorb part of the cost of the pro bono work.
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