Professionals with ethics Lawyers around the country are doing thousands of pounds-worth of work for thei r communities free. Barbara Lantin reports

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The Independent Online
In the corner of a classroom in Winton School, King's Cross, London, a young woman listens to a child reading. Along the corridor her colleague is going through some maths tables with another pupil. Nothing especially unusual about this, except th at thewomen are not teachers but trainee solicitors.

Jane MacCarthy and Rachel Mace, trainees at DJ Freeman, have joined the volunteers at Winton School as part of their firm's involvement with Business in the Community. Once a week they spend an hour working with the children before hopping on a bus to their office at the other end of Gray's Inn Road. They are among some 50 volunteers from businesses in the area who visit the school regularly, providing valuable extra adult time for pupils.

"It can be grim around here," says Winton's dynamic headteacher, Jane Fulford. "Most of the children live in flats and have nowhere to play because there are needles sticking out of bins in the park and condoms on the ground. Around 60 per cent of the children at Winton are on free school meals, and about the same proportion have English as their second language. At the last count there were 20 languages spoken here.

"A few years ago I was thinking about what the children really needed and I decided one answer was a lot more adults. When I was a child there was always somebody around to hear me read and tell me stories, and later to encourage my interests and help with homework. A lot of the children around here don't get enough of that."

With charity funding, the school set up its volunteer programme, Winton and Co. Ms Fulford has watched her pupils thrive from the extra attention, and now wants to improve life for their parents. She hopes to transform a derelict schoolkeeper's house in

the grounds into a community centre for the families of Winton children.

"At the moment it is a hideous Sixties box, but I would like to turn it into something functional, aesthetically pleasing and environmentally friendly. I could fill it five days a week with activities - adult literacy, professional advice, a library, homemaking classes, English teaching self-help groups."

Ms Fulford reckons that £20,000 will see the project up and running. As a first step, she approached Business in the Community to help her to find a laywer to turn Winton and Co into a charitable trust. BITC called in DJ Freeman, whose Jane O'Sullivan has drafted a deed of trust for the school. When Ms O'Sullivan learnt about the mentoring work that went on, she asked around the firm to see if anybody would be interested in going in. Jane MacCarthy and Rachel Mace volunteered.

The process is typical of the way in which the BITC's professional firms group (PFG) works. The 40 or so legal practices that belong to the group commit themselves to giving at least £5,000-worth of advice a year and many contribute more.

"The work tends to fall into three categories," says Keith James, chairman of Eversheds, Phillips and Buck in Cardiff, which contributes between 50 and 100 hours a year to BITC schemes. "There are property matters, like helping fledgling organisations

to sort out leases and get planning permission. Then there's the work involved in getting the organisation properly set up for the job it wants to do - articles of association and so on. Finally there's general commercial and employment advice."

Among the projects the firm has been involved is a centre for handicapped children and the restoration of a Valleys railway line. Other BITC-supported schemes include work on urban regeneration, heritage preservation and training for the unemployed - enterprises in which architects, accountants, surveyors and other professionals may also play a part. A national network of 12 regional PFGs is planned by the end of 1995, providing around £1m-worth of time to voluntary and community organisations.

The BITC work at Eversheds Phillips and Buck is just one of many pro bono commitments. "It is very much part of the firm's ethos," says Mr James. "It starts from the realisation that we derive our living from the community and that we must therefore put something back. Using our expertise is the most appropriate way to do that.

"I think the members of the practice enjoy it. Most of them are involved in corporate commercial work and this brings them into contact with people they would not otherwise see. There is an educational and training benefit."

Jeffrey Greenwood of Nabarro Nathanson, a founder member of the PFG, agrees that there is enormous enthusiasm for pro bono work, especially among young members of the firm. "Lawyers are often accused of being fat cats, but a lot of people really do want to give of their expertise and do not have the opportunity. In this firm it is considered a very satisfying part of the career structure and a good thing if you are asked to do this kind of work."

Pro bono clients are treated in the same way as those who pay, says Jeffrey Greenwood, whose firm contributes about £20,000 of chargeable time to BITC work each year. Cases are allocated according to expertise within the firm, and solicitors log the hours they work in the ordinary way, so the voluntary caseload does not affect their billing figures.

"The client is told what has been billed and written off so that they understand the value of the advice they are getting. It is a good discipline for people who might otherwise be a bit prodigal with the lawyer's time to know they are dealing with somebody who would otherwise charge a substantial hourly rate. We find people respect that."

The benefits to the firm are less tangible, but no less valuable. "Very few of the organisations we deal with in this way will develop into paying clients, so there's no immediate commercial benefit. But there is definitely a networking aspect, because you are working alongside other professionals. And the feelgood factor is important: people like to belong to a practice where this kind of work is valued."

Further information: Nick Thorn, Business in the Community, 8 Stratton Street, London WIX 5FD (071-629 1600).

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