• Oxford Commercial Awareness

Event Summary: “How and Why Corporations and NGOs Work Together” by Olivia Clark (DLA Piper)

Event Details:

Date & Time: 4 May 2021, 2PM

Location: Teams

Olivia Clark is a pro bono lawyer at DLA Piper. She has worked with law centres to deliver justice solutions in remote indigenous communities and has also worked for the Office of the High Commissions for Human Rights in Geneva.


DLA Piper has one of the leading pro bono practices in the world. The firm has a particular focus on looking at how merging legal and tech solutions can make a systemic change for the better.

Why do corporations engage in pro bono? First, when you are a commercial firm, you are now expected to do pro bono - why? Well, after the legal aid crisis in 2012 there is now a gap that must be filled. In order to keep the legal profession legitimate and to uphold the rule of law within the community, commercial firms are stepping in to give free legal advice. Additionally, many businesses are concerned about ESG, and so pro bono is a way to ameliorate the issues that clients may be contributing to.

The cuts in legal aid have been incredibly unfair, especially to those most vulnerable in society - particularly immigrants and refugees. Health and legal issues are intertwined. For example, there was a case where poor housing for asylum seekers led to poor health. The doctor could not address the underlying cause (unhygienic housing) but a lawyer could fix it relatively quickly as the issue was due to social reasons such as the fact that the housing was not appropriate. Thus, it is as important to invest in legal aid as much as it is important to invest in the NHS as it would help the economy/society overall.

Working in pro bono also has a preventative side to it. When a firm works in pro bono it gains knowledge and skills and can pass this on to its clients. This means that clients will have the skills to spot things like slavery in the supply chain etc.

Why else do corporations engage in NGOs/pro bono work? It helps attract and retain talent, since many bright ambitious candidates look for meaningful work.


Do you think that commercial law firms’ involvement in pro bono is continuing to increase and why do you think that is?

It’s definitely increasing, and I think it’s partly because of competitiveness; it retains and attracts the best talents, so firms are trying to engage in more pro bono work. For example, pro bono is something that sets DLA Piper apart, and so other big firms want to be able to talk about pro bono as well. There is also a new generation of lawyers that really care about human rights, even if they don’t want to be human rights lawyers themselves, they don’t want to work for an organisation that doesn’t care and respect human rights or don’t have a framework where lawyers can do human rights work.

With the pandemic, has it been more difficult to engage with beneficiaries, especially with respects to access to technology?

It’s been very difficult, especially when filing a case with the European Court, where you need to have a wet signature of the client, you can’t have an e-signature. It’s been very difficult to get the signature of a client when they are in a different country and the client doesn’t have a phone, and there’s no lawyers out in that country. We’ve had to ring local shops etc to locate the client. Lots of people say technology is the answer to access justice, and while technology is really useful for helping our clients, all of the clients I represent, they are living such difficult lives and technology actually doesn’t benefit them that much, because it is so out of reach for them. They are so empowered by society that has largely ignored them and treated them as invisible, the tech solution isn’t what they need, they just need someone to listen to them, and to help them with their legal and health problems. So it’s been quite difficult in that way, but everyone’s being quite creative in getting solutions out to people in these difficult situations when we do not already have lawyers out there.

What do you think will be the biggest trends in pro bono or human rights law in the future?

From a commercial law firm perspective, I think there will be a huge focus on ESG and climate risk as well, and a transition away from free pro bono to engaging in pro bono on a billable basis, so a mesh between giving legal advice for free to vulnerable client and using the skills and experiencing us lawyers are gaining through pro bono work and feeding that to our clients to create a stronger feedback loop to what we are experiencing with these vulnerable clients to our business clients. I think that is a huge trend. We are increasingly thinking about how we can make sure our clients are aware of what’s going on in terms of their supply chain, risk etc. and ensuring they know about human rights and climate risk issues that are relevant to their business.

What opportunities are there for pro bono early on in a legal career at DLA Piper?

So many! Trainees do lots of interesting pro bono work. At the moment, I have four trainees who are representing a client, of course with my supervision. It’s their opportunity to learn and grow as a lawyer, so we closely supervise trainees but also allow them to do lots of impactful, interesting case work, get out there, meet clients, do the client interviewing, do the drafting, and learn that way. And I have a lot of partners come to me and say, ‘I have got four new trainees in my team, can you place them in some of your clinics because become better lawyers when they do your pro bono work because they are getting out there and getting experience that they’re not getting in my team’. Often as a trainee, you do a lot of the boring but necessary work. But having a very established pro bono practice at DLA gives opportunities to learn, develop and to become a better lawyer.

Which firms do you know of that have a strong pro bono practice?

Reed Smith, Freshfields, Freehills, A&O. All of these firms have a very strong pro bono practice, and we all work together. We meet monthly with them to talk about the sector, gaps and new trends, projects we can run together, it’s a very collaborative sector and we’re constantly learning from other firms.

What set DLA Piper apart for you?

I was very unclear about whether I wanted to work in a commercial firm, I just didn’t see much social value of working at these big firms. These were attitudes I held as a young graduate. So when I met my boss at DLA and really found out about the extensive work DLA did, and not just organizing pro bono projects but lawyers doing the actual case work, I think that’s what really made me consider taking the job, because I really thought that I’d have opportunities and resources to develop.

Because I’d worked with governments where there's so much opportunity but there’s never any money. At DLA, the firm funds all the projects, so the Samos project for example, they have funded it for a number of years, and to get a project like that off the ground is really difficult without proper funding. Another huge benefit is that DLA Piper works really closely and supports NGO clients in a fantastic and collaborative way and uses the funding really well, and that makes me really proud to work at a firm that directs funding into such fantastic projects.

Olivia is happy to answer any further questions via LinkedIn!