Pro Bono Practice in France: The Current State and Direction

25 January 2011
Pro Bono Practice in France: The Current State and Direction

Over the last few years there have been substantial developments in relation to pro bono practice in France. This short piece provides personal assessment of current efforts being made in Paris.

Over the last few years there have been substantial developments in relation to pro bono practice in France. This short piece provides my personal assessment of current efforts being made in Paris.

French avocats have always assisted and represented on a charitable basis individuals and legal entities that cannot afford to pay for legal services. Historically, this was done mostly by individual avocats. Nowadays there is, of course, a French State legal aid system known as l'aide juridique, which comprises legal aid for representations in the courts ("aide juridictionnelle") as well as legal aid for non-contentious matters ("l'aide à l'accès au droit").

As a member of the Paris Bar, I can testify to the excellent access to justice initiatives put in place by the Bar. The Bar's website clearly explains to the general public, among other things, how to obtain legal aid for court representations, how to benefit from free consultations with Bar members, and how the most marginalized members of the public may take advantage of advice and assistance available from members of the Bar ("Barreau de Paris Solidarité").

However, it seems that only a limited number of "Anglo-Saxon" firms with Paris offices have joined in the initiatives organized by the Bar. The Paris offices of such firms have not always been as involved as they might have been in pro bono work, possibly because they have tended to be less well integrated into the Bar than their French colleagues, although this is gradually changing. Also, although lawyers working in such firms are usually French speakers and French-qualified, this is not always the case.

Many Anglo-Saxon firms have therefore created a local model of their US or UK pro bono practice, and many of them carry out pro bono work outside the above-mentioned scheme organized by the Bar.

These firms do not carry out legal aid work and are typically involved in international projects for NGOs. However, now increasing numbers of them are also involved in local as well as international efforts. For example, several such firms work with French-based NGOs such as Droits d'Urgence, which is "a humanitarian organization of legal professionals involved in the promotion of rights for those suffering from exclusion"[1]. Some lawyers have chosen to work with Droits d'Urgence through the Barreau de Paris Solidarité scheme (they staff a bus that visits four locations on the periphery of Paris to dispense free consultations: this is known as the "Bus de la Solidarité" and is a Paris Bar initiative in partnership with the City of Paris and Droits d'Urgence). Other lawyers work directly with Droits d'Urgence as volunteers in its many legal clinics.

One of the exciting developments resulting from the head offices of Anglo-Saxon law firms encouraging pro bono work in their Paris offices was the creation in 2007 of an informal pro bono roundtable group which now meets in Paris three times a year. The group presently comprises some 35 French and foreign law firms and over 130 individuals. The participants are from private practice, companies, and NGOs, and meet in order to exchange information and take part in both international and domestic pro bono work. On the international side, the group has become an informal network able to link lawyers with NGOs requiring pro bono assistance. The success of the group in this regard has prompted reflection about the creation of a more structured "model" able to efficiently match lawyers with NGOs. On the domestic side, the group is exploring a project in which it would partner with Droits d'Urgence to staff additional legal clinics.

In conclusion, my sense is that a coming together of pro bono efforts by individual French avocats and other individuals, French firms, the Bar, foreign firms present in Paris and, more recently, in-house counsel, is occurring, to the great advantage of those individuals and organizations in real need of pro bono advice and assistance.

Gillian C. Lemaire is a solicitor (Scotland) and avocat (Paris Bar). She is senior counsel in the Paris office of Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP, practicing international dispute resolution, particularly international arbitration. She was actively involved in the creation of the Paris pro bono roundtable group mentioned above and sits on the steering committee for that group. She also co-chairs the pro bono committee of her firm's Paris office and is a member of PILnet's Pro Bono Advisory Council.

1. Bédos, Jean-Luc "Droits d'Urgence: Access of Citizens to Legal Information in France", Fordham International Law Journal 24: S1-S8 (2000).