chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
January 03, 2022

ABA ROLI’s ACCESS Program Holds Second Annual Pro Bono Summit to Promote Pro Bono Lawyering

With the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) partnered with the Supreme Court of the Philippines, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), and the Legal Education Board for the second annual Philippine Pro Bono Summit. The summit, with the theme “Promoting Pro Bono Lawyering in the Philippines,” was designed to increase pro bono lawyering in the country and was held via Zoom with simultaneous broadcast via Facebook Live on December 2, 2021.

More than 300 attendees, including members of the judiciary, government lawyers and private practitioners, the academia, law students and civil society organizations, took part in the event.

Hon. Mary Margaret McKeown, Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and Special Advisor to ABA, delivered the Welcoming Remarks. “ABA ROLI is so proud of our deep history in the Philippines and especially these efforts … with pro bono legal services. That’s possible only because we’ve had the support and buy-in of so many partners … and a pro bono program can only be sustained when we have the lawyers, law students, the academics and others willing to put in their time … We should never say no to justice,” Hon. McKeown emphasized these points in her message.

Hon. Alexander Gesmundo, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, delivered the Keynote Remarks. In his speech, Chief Justice Gesmundo emphasized the importance of pro bono lawyering. “Pro bono lawyering requires the adoption of a holistic approach which may only be done through collaboration and coordination of efforts by the members of the legal community and civil society. True dedication to the spirit of public service requires pro bono lawyers to be constantly visible, readily accessible, and quick to action.

There were five sessions in the summit in which the expert presenters examined how to promote and expand pro bono legal services in the country: 1) the increasing need for lawyers to support the most vulnerable through pro bono legal services, 2) the need for law firms/lawyers to provide pro bono, 3) how law firms can respond to the gap in demand for legal services from the most vulnerable Filipinos, 4) the use of technology to connect lawyers with pro bono opportunities, and 5) open forum.

In one of these sessions, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines presented the ‘Proposed Unified Legal Aid Services Rule’ (ULAS), which aims to strengthen access to pro bono legal service by vulnerable sectors. The presentation of the ULAS was made by IBP President Atty. Burt Estrada and Atty. Eric Alajar, Director of the IBP National Center for Legal Aid. Amongst the key features of the proposed Rules is the institutionalization of mandatory pro bono lawyering in criminal, civil, administrative, labor or other quasi-judicial cases for indigent and other marginalized groups. Marginalized sectors under the proposed rules include inter alia, overseas Filipino workers, fisher folks, farmers, laborers, indigenous cultural communities, women, children and other disadvantaged groups. Lawyers doing pro bono work will also handle public interest cases defined under the ULAS as those with ‘societal impact and would benefit a greater number of the community.’

The panelists for the ULAS session included Quezon City Regional Trial Court and Executive Judge Hon. Cecilyn Burgos-Villabert, former IBP Makati Chapter President and ACCRA Law Managing Partner Atty. Arnold Corporal, University of the Philippines College of Law Dean Edgardo Carlo L. Vistan II, IBP Cebu City Chapter President Atty. Michelle Geraldine Mendez-Palmares, and Leflegis Law Firm Co-Founder Atty. Camille Parpan. The panel made the following observations on the ULAS: 1) the number of hours rendered and credits earned can be applied as ‘Mandatory Continuing Legal Education’ points; 2) applying the ULAS to lawyers already employed in government agencies would consider them as engaging in public service; 3) requiring lawyers in the private sector, not otherwise categorized under a law firm, to provide pro bono service; and 4) the attribution process of pro bono work by attorneys in law firms who handle cases with other lawyers. In response, IBP President Atty. Burt Estrada committed to organize further discussions to gather recommendations from the legal community for study and consolidation prior to submission to the Supreme Court. 

The pro bono summit also presented a discussion on the need for law firms or lawyers to provide pro bono services. The panel of speakers included Legal Education Board (LEB) Commissioner Josefe C. Sorrera-Ty, LEB Executive Officer Atty. Aaron Marc Dumaano, Dean Dominina Rances of the Ateneo de Naga College of Law, Atty. Axel Rupert Cruz of the Ateneo de Manila Legal Services, and Dean Daniel Diaz of Northeastern Mindanao State University. In this session LEB discussed the significance of the law clinics under the clinical legal education program (CLEP) as provided in the new model law curriculum, and the role of lawyers as supervising attorneys to students. Commissioner Josefe Sorrera-Ty explained that the implementation of the CLEP involves building law clinics as social institutions that ensure justice for the underserved. Atty. Dimaano also of LEB presented the framework for the training of law students and spoke about the intersectionality of the roles of stakeholders from the pillars of legal education which includes among others, the courts, the IBP, the law students, and the community. Atty. Dimaano cited ways in which IBP members can do pro bono work through the CLEP by offering their organizations as areas of externship in addition to the traditional litigation work.

From the perspective of the academia, Ateneo de Naga University Dean Domnina Rances from the Philippine Association of Law Schools emphasized the importance of supervising lawyers in guiding law student practitioners in clinical legal education programs. Dean Rances enumerated three of the major challenges that hinder law schools from getting supervising lawyers: 1) Law schools cannot afford to pay supervising lawyers, which may also be a big problem for new law schools that do not have a pool of alumni lawyers; 2) Lawyers are hesitant to volunteer in legal clinics as it may unduly widen their areas of conflict and restrict their respective practices; and 3) Lawyers experience commitment issues because they do not know what is expected of them in being responsible for both a client and the education of a law student.

On behalf of IBP Chapters outside of the National Capital Region, IBP Pampanga Chapter President Atty. Socrates Padua shared a few success stories of their attorneys providing free legal aid. Atty. Padua also shared the efforts of their chapter to incentivize pro bono work to encourage more lawyers to participate in the program.

In the session on strategic approaches to pro bono work specific to vulnerable sectors, the panel included Atty. Bruce Lasky of the Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia Community Legal Education Initiative (BABSEACLE), Atty. Aaron Chan of DLA Piper Hong Kong, Atty. Hector De Leon, Managing Partner of Sycip Law, and Atty. Pierre Martin Reyes of Weigand and Partners. BABSEACLE attorney Mr. Lasky highlighted the recent Asia Pro Bono Conference and the ongoing efforts to organize roundtable discussions in Southeast Asia. For DLA Piper, Atty. Chan talked about New Perimeter, the not-for-profit affiliate of the firm, and the program’s focus areas and their various projects, including capacity building for women lawyers and trial advocacy for young lawyers. 

Atty. De Leon of Sycip Law discussed pro bono lawyering from the perspective of a local law firm. Atty. De Leon noted that one of the guidelines of the firm was imparted by the Retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Vicente Mendoza through the words, “public service in private practice.” Sycip Law communicates and emphasizes the importance of pro bono work and gives due recognition to lawyers with outstanding performance in the program. 

Weigand and Partners’ representative attorney discussed the perspective of doing pro bono work under newly established firms. In his presentation, Mr. Reyes pointed out that pro bono work can and will include extending assistance in the crafting of proposed legislation; involving social enterprises; and provision of advisory services on various aspects of the law.

The final discussion featured the use of technology to connect lawyers with pro bono opportunities. Speakers included Atty. Kate Fazio of Justice Connect, Atty. Amanda Brown of Lagniappe Law Lab, Atty. Joanitta Britton Menon and Atty. Fiona Li of Thomson Reuters Foundation Trust Law, and Dean Annabelle Cañazares of Mindanao State University. The panelists in this session shared the impetus for the development of their respective legal aid portals and how they maximize its reach to connect the public to lawyers and other organizations providing free legal assistance.

Survey Results

To collect information on the practice of pro bono lawyering, insights on the proposed mandatory legal aid service and general feedback on the event, ABA ROLI invited participants to respond to poll questions and the activity survey. Below are some of the significant findings from their responses.

Respondents Regularly Providing Pro Bono Legal Services

Respondents Regularly Providing Pro Bono Legal Services

Of the 125 respondents, 58% are providing pro bono legal services, 46% of whom are engaged regularly

Pro Bono Legal Service Efforts With Support from Organizations, Firms, or Schools

Pro Bono Legal Service Efforts With Support from Organizations, Firms, or Schools

Based on the survey, most pro bono legal service efforts are supported by firms, organizations, and/or schools (98% of responses)

Respondents who agreed to the Proposed Unified Legal Aid Service Rule

Respondents who agreed to the Proposed Unified Legal Aid Service Rule

More than half of the 137 respondents agree with the ULAS policy (76% responses)

Respondents willing to Handle Cases if Done via Videoconferencing

Respondents willing to Handle Cases if Done via Videoconferencing

88% of the respondents expressed their willingness in handling cases (pro bono legal aid cases) especially if done via videoconferencing

Learn more about ABA ROLI’s work across Asia & the Pacific.