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The Good Fight: A Consideration of Hungarian Pro Bono Culture

The Good Fight: A Consideration of Hungarian Pro Bono Culture

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Pro bono is a Latin phrase meaning “for the public good,” and, in the lawyering context, it refers to legal services provided free of charge, generally to indigent clients or charities or other public interest institutions unable to afford standard legal fees. The practice, which in its current form was developed first in Western legal markets, has seen a significant increase in recent years in CEE as well. Hungary is among the countries leading the way.

Why?

Lawyers do pro bono work for a variety of reasons, including out of a sense of civic responsibility, the opportunity to gain experience, and even, sometimes, for social recognition.

Hungarian sole practitioner Kinga Zempleni, for one, says she puts in a minimum of ten hours of pro bono work each month. “In my opinion it is a moral duty to help those who are in need,” she says. “And for this reason I started doing pro bono.” Zempleni, who offers her pro bono assistance out of her eponymous Budapest law office, says that, “when I was younger I worked on several voluntary projects for disabled people, but currently I think that I can offer the most if I provide NGOs or people free legal advice.” Indeed, the role of non-governmental organizations in a civil society and their need for assistance and support from the legal community is critical to her engagement. “NGOs have a very important role in society,” she says. “They help children, disabled, refugees, women, orphans, and so on. If we had no NGOs our lives would be poorer, we would have less values. For this reason, I think it is important to help them in any way possible.” As a result, she says, “each month I put in ten hours at least in pro bono work.” 

Of course, for lawyers at bigger firms, pro bono work provides more than a social benefit: it gives younger lawyers exposure to areas beyond their normal professional focus and a level of responsibility and practical experience they are often denied in the early years of their career with paying clients. Thus, because the firms derive both social capital and a useful training mechanism for their younger associates, while pro bono work at the larger international law firms is generally done on a voluntary basis, lawyers usually get credit towards their billable targets for time put in. 

And, voluntary or not, in many firms the practice is actively promoted. DLA Piper, for instance, “encourages lawyers to put in at least 35 hours a year,” says Ozgur Kahale, the firm’s Pro Bono Director, Europe, and she reports that the firm’s Budapest office spent a total of 739 hours on pro bono in 2016. 

According to Judit Kertesz, Baker McKenzie Professional and Business Development Manager, her firm “emphasizes pro bono to give incentive to lawyers to help individuals in need of legal counsel, and organizations that share the same values as Baker McKenzie and the society at large.” And the younger lawyers are active participants, Kertesz explains. “As regards pro bono clients, the office management is eager to consider anyone’s ideas. For example, our most recent client, Habitat, was suggested by a junior associate.”

Law firms and lawyers can also find pro bono cases from entities dedicated to that function, such as PILnet’s Pro Bono Clearing House in Budapest, which sends registering law firms a list of available pro bono matters from NGOs that have signed up with it. According to Tamas Barabas, Senior Legal Officer in PILnet’s Budapest office, lawyers from law firms generally begin by picking matters within their traditional areas of expertise, such as Employment Law, Tax, Compliance, the nature of which are largely administrative and advisory. But, Barabas reports, “law firms have shown they are willing to go beyond their comfort zones.” He cites as an example the collaboration between PILnet and NGOs dealing with cases of child custody and orphans with little access to justice, for which PILnet recruited Oppenheim, Dentons, and DLA Piper, among others, which in turn put forward a small group of lawyers to be trained as child rights experts by the NGOs. According to Barabas, this group of trained experts now regularly handles cases of child rights submitted by NGO’s.

Finally, although few will admit to pursuing it as a primary goal, lawyers, like everyone else, enjoy being recognized for work well done. Thus, in collaboration with PILnet, the Hungarian Bar Association – which also encourages pro bono involvement from its lawyers through a variety of publications and other methods – organizes the annual Hungarian Pro Bono Awards to recognize the individual lawyers and law firms that have strengthened civil society through their provision of meritorious pro bono services. In 2016, Kinga Zempleni won the Award for Best Hungarian Pro Bono Lawyer, while Baker McKenzie was named the Hungarian Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year.

Who?

According to Lorna Kralik, the Senior Legal Officer heading PILnet’s Global Pro Bono Clearing House in Budapest, “law firms have been leaders in this area.” And, adds her colleague Tamas Barabas, within the law firm world, “international law firms are much more involved than local law firms.” In addition, Barabas reports, lawyers at large and mid-sized law firms tend to do more pro bono work – perhaps because they have greater resources at hand – than sole practitioners. 

And indeed, it appears many of the sole practitioners who now excel at pro bono work seem to have been exposed to the practice during their time in larger firms. Zempleni, for instance, says “I was introduced to pro bono in 2008, when I worked for Reczicza White & Case (currently Reczicza Dentons Europe). My previous firm already had a connection with PILnet, and I started through their network to cooperate with NGOs.”

And regardless of the source of the initial exposure to pro bono work, it would be a mistake to think it is all done by lawyers in private practice; some in-house lawyers are passionate about the practice as well. One such lawyer is Daniel Szabo, Country Legal Counsel for Hungary at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Szabo, who explains that “HP, being a U.S company, has a strong pro bono culture,” works in partnership with a lawyer from the Budapest office of Weil Gotshal & Manges to avoid risks caused by his ineligibility for insurance.

Still, as Kralik says, it is the larger and international law firms that have traditionally led the way. Unfortunately, that often means that the majority of law firm pro bono work is done in the capitals of CEE, where the international and larger domestic firms have their offices. And even those firms outside of the largest cities who do want to do pro bono work face challenges their counterparts in the capitals do not. Kinga Zempleni agrees that “it is hard for lawyers outside Budapest to get involved in pro bono,” because only lawyers who have the luxury of time and money can fully engage in these services. In her words, being able to do pro bono work “is a privilege.”

Where?

By this point, firms across all of CEE are committing time and resources towards pro bono projects. According to Barabas, Hungary played a critical role in bringing a pro bono culture to CEE. “Hungary started it at first in 2005, so by now the gospel of pro bono culture and practice has spread quite well in the legal community,” and he says the country “has an advantage in providing corporate legal support for NGOs that include labor and employment, tax law, and contractual audits.”

Still, he emphasizes that many other countries in the region have since caught up. “Even though Hungary had that ice-breaking role,” he says, “Poland’s law firms are the real champions in the region in doing pro bono. Polish commercial law firms are bravely litigating human rights cases on a pro bono basis, which is not that common in other countries in CEE.” In addition, he says, the Czech pro bono system is also quite established. “Slovakia is outstanding in the region on corporate CSR activities and is a major player,” he says, “and Romania is unique since Cluj has a non-capital city pro bono center coordinated by ACTEDO, a local equality rights NGO, and Bucharest FDSC is working on to facilitate pro bono projects among firms and NGOs.”

Still, Hungary’s role as the tip of the spear for pro bono work in CEE remains significant. According to Kralik, “there is hope for pro bono culture in CEE, if places like Budapest remain a leader.”

This Article was originally published in Issue 4.9 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.

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