We sat down with Chloe O’Brien, London Pro Bono Counsel, and Matt Shankland, co-leader of the Commercial Litigation and Disputes practice group and Chairman of the London Office Pro Bono Committee. Chloe and Matt weighed in on the London office’s growing Pro Bono practice and how they are continuing to scale up projects to help Sidley’s clients.
Chloe, since joining Sidley in early 2021, what work are you most proud of in your role as London Pro Bono Counsel?
COB: I joined Sidley at a time when our lawyers and the global pro bono community had contributed unprecedented levels of pro bono work in response to the pandemic. I had the opportunity to consolidate and build upon this incredible work.
In 2021, we doubled our access to justice projects, launching new partnerships with legal service providers to serve litigants in person in the family court, support women in prison, and provide advice to underrepresented entrepreneurs. We also expanded our welfare benefits project to in-house counsel and worked with immigration practitioners to assist in responding to the crisis in Afghanistan.
Matt, what aspect of the London office’s Pro Bono practice were you most proud of in 2021?
MS: We launched a major partnership with Not Beyond Redemption, a charity specializing in providing legal advice for women in prison. We trained nearly 50 of our lawyers in various aspects of family law and advocacy and now hold regular clinics in several prisons in England. Going forward, we hope to support Not Beyond Redemption to expand its work to all 13 women’s prisons across the UK.
On the heels of a very active year for pro bono work in 2020, what pro bono trends did you see in 2021?
COB: I felt there was a noticeable increase in interconnectivity and collaboration, both internally across practice groups within Sidley and in the wider community. Working closely together, particularly in response to crises, enabled us to come up with creative solutions and better support NGOs and legal services providers to increase their capacity to deliver front-line services. For example, we set up several remote projects that were able to reach people across the UK.
MS: We saw an increase in attempts to connect with developing global issues, in particular the refugee crisis arising from Afghanistan. 2020 saw our highest firmwide pro bono hours to date, and in London, we were able to increase participation even further in 2021. We now have a very high percentage of our fee earners involved in pro bono and an average of 49 hours per lawyer. Looking forward, we are expecting this growth to continue into 2022 and beyond.
What would you say to encourage those who are not yet involved in pro bono?
MS: Pro bono advice allows charities and nonprofits to ensure that their funds go into achieving their primary aims, rather than expensive legal advice. To anyone who hasn’t yet done a case, I would say that you will be surprised at what you can achieve by applying your skills in a different context and how it will enable you to contribute to community causes that are important to you.
COB: The work is extremely rewarding and the clients are incredibly grateful. It really is a privilege to be able to use the skills we have as lawyers to help people.
How do Sidley’s pro bono efforts in London stand apart from other firms?
COB: We have a fellowship program where final seat trainees can apply to spend three months at a charity or nonprofit before joining the firm as newly qualified associates. Having a full-time additional resource is so valuable to the client and allows our lawyers to fully embed pro bono service into their practice and develop their skills in a really meaningful way.
Looking ahead, what initiatives is the London office focusing on?
MS: Off the back of two years of incredible growth for our Pro Bono practice, we want to focus on scaling up our access to justice projects. Our projects connect with so many issues and touch points, both locally and globally. We provide critical legal services across key areas of need, including immigration and asylum, family law, welfare benefits, and corporate advice to underrepresented groups. Expanding these projects, including to in-house counsel at client organizations, will help to close the access to justice gap.
COB: We are interested in the intersection of sustainability, health, and technology. For example, we are developing projects and skills in conservation and rewilding, which is a relatively new area of law aimed at restoring and protecting natural areas. We are also focusing on supporting start-ups and entrepreneurs in the emerging Digital Health sector.