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Address on the Occasion of the First Pro Bono Gala Dinner in the Middle East, Delivered by Michael Hwang, Chief Justice of the DIFC Courts

Address on the Occasion of the First Pro Bono Gala Dinner in the Middle East, Delivered by Michael Hwang, Chief Justice of the DIFC Courts

October 11, 2012


Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel, Dubai, 11 October 2012


This is a subject close to my heart.

I was the President of the Legal Services Society for 2 ½ years before I took on my position of Chief Justice of the DIFC Courts in Dubai.. One of our most important activities was establishing and maintaining a strong Pro Bono programme in Singapore, so I was happy to be indirectly involved in overseeing the beginnings of a programme there, because this is really a universal movement in the legal profession.

I myself was an active participant in Pro Bono work long before that term was fashionable – as a member of Samaritans of Singapore; handling an assigned murder case; appearing on a panel of legal aid advisers and then taking individual cases that involved prosecuting as well as defending other lawyers on disciplinary offences.

I take no credit for the establishment of our DIFC Courts programme, which is largely due to the efforts of Amna Al Owais, our Deputy Registrar, and the response of the legal community here. (I was so proud last year, both of her and of DIFC Courts, when the IBA gave her special recognition at the IBA Conference in Dubai for her work in bringing all of you together to create a Pro Bono infrastructure within the DIFC).

This dinner is to acknowledge and thank and congratulate all those who have supported our Pro Bono scheme, because without your commitment to this programme, Pro Bono would only have remained an ideal – instead of the reality we have today, the first such programme in the Middle East. And Pro Bono is important for Dubai, because without Pro Bono, we are deficient in Access to Justice, and every derogation from Access to Justice is a derogation from the Rule of Law.

Let me tell you just one feature of Singapore’s Pro Bono programme which was established on my watch. We asked all law firms to pledge 25 hours per lawyer per annum (Multiply this by 3,500 lawyers, which would create – in theory at least – a bank of 87,500 pro bono hours). We also asked all lawyers to report their annual contributions on their applications for renewal of their PCs. So far about 95% of our lawyers have responded to our questionnaire, and have reported an average of 9.6 hours in the first year and 12 hours in the second, so we are still a way off. But compare this to the US, where the ABA officially recommend 50 hours and the top law firms voluntarily pledge 5% of billable hours (or a per lawyer annual average of 60 to 100 hours).

Why do lawyers – whose main aim in life is to earn a living from their legal expertise – do this? Because they see professional benefits in Pro Bono, especially for young lawyers. Pro Bono work results in the following:

1. it develops soft lawyering skills in an inexpensive and efficient way, by exposing them early to one on one client relationships with real people with human problems – rather than representatives of corporations with corporate problems
2. in that client relationship, young lawyers learn how to take instructions from people and explain the law to those who may not be so educated: in doing so they acquire street smart skills
3. they get personal satisfaction from making a difference, not to money or assets of corporations or wealthy people, but to the lives of people with problems which affect their basic rights, their jobs, their homes, their family lives, their relationships with the state and their human rights
4. this in turn improves their morale – it relieves them from corporate fatigue in dealing with endless document discovery, and arcane research in litigation, or proof reading and due diligence in transactional work


For the older lawyers who employ the young lawyers who engage in Pro Bono, let me say this:

5. the firm gains from this increased personal satisfaction and self esteem, as well as the bonding between young pro bono lawyers who are mentored by more senior lawyers, whether in their own firm or from other firms
6. the firm could also gain from the greater exposure of these young lawyers to leaders in community organizations for which the firm does pro bono work, who can recommend them for fee paying assignments
7. this leads to the benefit that a firm can earn from having a firm policy of pro bono, not just to individuals but to deserving institutions like charities, non-profit and other community organisations, because of the high profile that some of these pro bono activities can engender (e.g. my old firm has such a policy of adopting particular welfare organizations and providing free legal services to them)
8. the firm’s standing in the community is also enhanced, and these days it is almost unavoidable for firms to publish their pro bono and CSR policies – because almost every major firm is doing so anyway!

I think that most law firms have already got the message that pro bono for society is pro bono for law firms as well. But I end with two pieces of practical advice for those wannabes who wish to get into Pro Bono, and are wondering how to get started (other than volunteering for legal aid clinics), and how much they need to do if they don’t want to keep timesheets against the aspirational 50 or 100 hour target.

First, I suggest (borrowing a phrase from someone else) – find “Pockets of Passion.” There must be some activity of social value that you feel passionate about, be it sports, the arts or the sick, or education. There are many institutions devoted to advancing those interests and you or your firm can volunteer to provide them with legal advice or services (and this is the answer to the transactional lawyers who say it is difficult for them to find opportunities to do pro bono)

Second, I leave you with this thought.

A wise man I knew was talking to me about charity, and I asked him how much should I give to charity, and somehow I dropped the phrase, “I think I should give until it hurts” and he replied “No, don’t give until it hurts, just give until it feels good”. And I hope you can take that as a rule of thumb, because, at the end of the day, never mind all the theoretical justifications I have given earlier; we do pro bono for our own personal satisfaction to fulfill our sense of commitment to our calling as lawyers.

So what better test of whether we have fulfilled our commitment is there, than to ask ourselves if we feel the better for having given of our professional skills to support those who need them? And if you can honestly say that you are satisfied with what you have done by way of pro bono, then you don’t need to justify that to anyone else.

11 OCTOBER 2012


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