What motivates Australian lawyers? Money pretty much, according to a national survey published late last week. But the reality may be more complex. We asked two lawyers for their view.

This opinion is pro bono, writes Greg Barns: Over the past 12 months I, along with one of Australia’s leading senior counsel, have spent time working on a case with one of Australia’s largest commercial law firms. The case is not about a takeover or a dispute about clauses in a multi-billion dollar construction construct. This law firm and myself are representing an individual who is among the most vulnerable in our community — a person who is detained by the state.

That a commercial law firm would take on this case, on a pro bono basis, might surprise those who read a survey released last week by Beacon Consulting which showed that around 65% of lawyers at top tier firms are motivated either by hard work or money, or both. The impression one gains about big law firms from the Beacon Consulting Survey is that they are factories inhabited by type A personalities working 18 hour days to feed their consumer addiction. There are no doubt many who would fit into that category, but equally there are many other lawyers who are caring, have a genuinely developed social conscience, and who treat their employees with respect.

The partner and lawyers working under him in the law firm with which I have been involved commit as much time and passion to the pro bono case as they do to cases involving large fee paying commercial clients. In Melbourne at least, nearly all the large law firms have more than a token commitment to working with community legal services and those that specialize in areas like mental health. Such a commitment would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

Large law firms still like to make money and some of the older members of such firms are politically conservative and have little understanding of the appalling emotional and physical cost that is involved in working long hours day after day. But they are moving on, fortunately.

Nothing is for nothing, writes Peter Faris QC: There is an old Jewish saying that it is good to give to charity but the highest thing is to give anonymously. I have read Greg Barns’ article above, and I disagree with little of it. But I would go to the next step. Pro bono work is done by large firms and lavishly advertised and made public. This is done for two main reasons. One, it is feel-good, politically correct work and two, governments often mandate a percentage of pro bono work before big firms can get on a panel for lucrative Government work.

Nothing is for nothing.

Much of the pro bono work is high profile Aboriginal work. Often it is no-win no-fee work where the case has been carefully assessed and the lawyers get paid in the end. All this is very well and I do not criticise it. I just challenge the belief by Barns that lawyers are not Capitalists, that they really care and that they do pro bono work because they love people.

There are huge areas where people cannot get legal representation. Poor whites and immigrants daily appear in the courts without representation. And that is just criminal prosecutions. They have no hope of assistance in any civil litigation or in all the other matters where lawyers are useful but prohibitively expensive.

If the big firms want to look good, let them set up a comprehensive legal service of duty lawyers at the courts. A few million dollars would go a long way. And it is a tax deduction.

Barns (the socialist) and Faris (the capitalist) seem to have reversed their polarities here. I think lawyers do it for the money, he disagrees.

And a word to all my critics. Any pro bono work that I do, I do anonymously.