The Philanthropic Lawyer
21st Jul 2016
‘You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give’
This is a personal account of my quest to provide humanitarian services to the community, in alignment with my vision and values of all Australians receiving access to legal advice and legal services, particularly women experiencing domestic and family violence and those who rely on the legal system to achieve their safety. I hope to inspire other law firms and lawyers to provide pro bono and fee reduced work within their own law firms, and to practise with compassion, empathy, and kindness.
I practise law with my heart and head. In dealing with our vulnerable clients, I strongly believe that compassion, empathy, and kindness all have a place in the legal system. This statement may come as a particular surprise to graduate and junior lawyers who have been taught in law school about the ‘objective lawyer’—the imaginary objective lawyer devoid of feelings and heart.
If you practise law with feelings and heart, your conscience and personal ethical compass will find it difficult to turn the vulnerable client away, especially when that client has sought help from other alternatives, and has little or no options left. It is not uncommon for a client to not qualify for legal aid services (despite social and economic disadvantage), and to not qualify for community legal centre services. To my mind, it is against my conscience, my personal ethical compass, and commitment as a lawyer whose fundamental role it is to serve, to turn this client away. At a minimum, the lawyer or law firm should ask ‘what can we do to help this client’, ‘what do we have capacity to do’, and ‘what is the minimum level of service we can provide’. When trying to answer these questions, the starting point should be that something can be provided to the socio-economically disadvantaged client, and the law firm or lawyer should consider the type of service that can be provided to the client. The level of service that may be provided can include a conference to help the client prepare for court as a self-represented litigant, drafting court documents for the client (but not appearing in court for the client), or reviewing a client’s drafted documents and providing pointers on these documents.
It would be naive of me to suggest that law firms should not be profitable, or that it is selfish to operate a profitable law firm committed to servicing full fee paying clients.
As the old adage goes ‘put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.’ The more profitable my law firm is, the more I can build a practice offering extensive humanitarian services.
For me, profitability means that I am personally richer because I live and act each day with purpose and make a meaningful impact on the lives of my clients, by building a financially profitable law firm which creates job prospects in regional Queensland, living a financially comfortable life, and creating the financial space within my own law firm to help clients on a pro bono or fee reduced basis.
As an owner of a law firm, I understand the need for profitability. However, my commitment to profitability is driven by achieving altruistic and humanitarian outcomes. Conducting fee-reduced work can still be profitable and it helps if certain business decisions are made, such as virtual legal services being offered (which reduce commercial overheads), junior staff performing legal work, the use and assistance of work experience students, and the general sacrifice of working a little longer to perform the humanitarian work outside of business hours, to maximise the ‘billable day’ to meet billable targets.
There are ways of offering pro bono services and fee reduced services if there is a commitment to do so, one just has to be creative in working out ways to deliver this work.
I promise that you will always feel ‘richer’ when you make a profound difference to a client, especially when this profound difference has been achieved through altruistic commitment and effort.
Chrissy Leontios is the Principal Lawyer and Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner of the new firm, CLEON Legal & Mediation Services (Justice. Fairness. Equality). This firm was set up to address access to justice issues in Australia; it offers virtual services, with a focus on assisting self-represented persons, in family law matters (drafting Divorce Applications, Consent Orders, Initiating Applications), criminal matters (reviewing briefs of evidence, and assisting accused persons with writing submissions, bail applications, and other criminal matters), and prisoner ombudsman appeals. Additionally, this firm assists families going through family mediations, in person, via the telephone, and via video-link. Chrissy is involved in the academic development of the Graduate Diploma of Family Dispute Resolution Program; she researches and writes widely in this discipline. She is also a sessional tutor with James Cook University, and provides tutorial support in the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme. Chrissy also conducts Official Visitor Inspections in Townsville prisons. She has a fierce passion for prison accountability, and the fair and humane treatment of prisoners.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).