By Shaveena Anam:
In 2014, I joined iProbono, an organisation that enables lawyers and law students to use their skills for social good, to develop their work in Bangladesh. I was required to find lawyers, willing to provide pro bono legal support to civil society organisations. In this article, I appraise our progress and highlight some key achievements and contributions of the vibrant iProbono legal community in Bangladesh.
The term pro bono is derived from the Latin ‘pro bono publico’ which means ‘for the public good’. In the legal context, it is the provision of free legal services. With limited exposure to the country’s legal sector, my work and iProbono’s mission was met with scepticism and doubt from stakeholders. Initially, I was discouraged to learn how Bangladeshi lawyers, particularly those involved in the corporate sector, have little to no interest in social work and were unwilling to work for free.
Over the years, I found that my initial perception was deeply misinformed. Although there is no formal structure of pro bono in Bangladesh, there is an informal culture of providing free legal services to vulnerable clients. I met few social-minded lawyers who eagerly joined the iProbono community. They were keen to use their skills, knowledge, and resources to help people who had no recourse to high-quality legal advice and to make a difference.
Barrister Saqeb Mahbub, a senior associate at the law firm Mahbub and Company and an active member of iProbono’s legal community in Dhaka, has completed several pro bono projects for three different civil society organisations. One of these was Basha Enterprises, which employs women who were sex workers or victims of trafficking to create textiles, jewellery, and accessories. Originally registered as a for-profit company, the organisation faced certain limitations regarding the social impact they wanted to create. Saqeb Mahbub assisted them to register as a non-profit organisation to work alongside their social enterprise to combat trafficking and address additional needs of the women who worked for them.
There is a common misconception that pro bono legal services only involve litigation and providing legal support to underprivileged individuals or communities. iProbono’s model reveals that services like legal expertise in tax, drafting contracts, employment policies, and the formation and governance of organisations are extremely helpful to NGOs and social enterprises.
Our pro bono lawyers at Sadat Sarwat and Associates provided pro bono support to Drinkwell, an organisation that works to solve Bangladesh’s arsenic problem, and enhanced their operations by modifying their franchise agreements to suit the Bangladeshi context. Anita Ghazi, founder and partner of The Legal Circle, contributed over 200 pro bono hours to help Subarta Trust, an initiative that provides support to senior citizens, by giving advice and drafting legal documents to strengthen their services and impact. In these different ways, transactional pro bono support strengthens civil society organisations that work to improve the lives of those who are most vulnerable or marginalised in society.
Other than creating a social impact, there are professional benefits to working pro bono as the practice provides an exceptional opportunity for career growth. Law students gain invaluable experience and insight while working on pro bono projects. Young lawyers at early stages of their careers can gain practical experience and build essential skills. Providing pro bono services demonstrates a lawyer’s ethics and sense of responsibility as well as builds their profile. It also allows a law firm to expand and develop a network, enabling them to be contributors to Bangladesh’s development and social welfare.
Legal communities around the world recognise the potential of pro bono to address poverty and human rights violations, increase access to justice, and create a global social impact. Systematic structures of pro bono exist in other jurisdictions making it easier for lawyers to give back and foster the growth of access to justice, but this is yet to happen in Bangladesh. For example, in America, it is mandatory for lawyers to serve at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services annually. Singapore implemented mandatory annual pro bono reporting obligations and takes pro bono hours into account when assessing applications for senior counsel appointments. Thailand also incentivises pro bono lawyers through pro bono accolades and access to justice training. Cultivating a system of pro bono within Bangladesh has the potential for immense social impact while strengthening the legal sector.
More information about iProbono’s work can be accessed here.
The author is iProbono’s Bangladesh Country Representative
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