Finding the Words for Pro Bono in China
How do you translate pro bono in China? That simple question was the theme of a recent conference PILnet sponsored with one of our partners in China, the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV), in Hainan—the island province off the southern coast of mainland China. PILnet, with its Chinese partners, has been gradually building the field of public interest law in China over the past decade. More recently, we have been trying to engage commercial law firms as supporters of that effort.
The main topic of discussion was the role that Chinese private sector lawyers can play in supplementing the work of these devoted leaders of Chinese public interest law (gong yi fa in Mandarin). In general, there was agreement that all lawyers in China, including business lawyers, can and should contribute their professional skills to serving the interests of those who cannot afford their legal fees.
Chinese legal aid regulations require lawyers to take cases on an unpaid basis when assigned through a network of government-run legal aid centers throughout the country. But this requirement is not consistently implemented, monitored, or enforced, and most importantly it fails to harness the untapped potential of genuine voluntarism that could be made available by an enthusiastic and well-resourced segment of the private bar.
There is great potential in China to harness voluntarism among lawyers. But for the idea to spread, it needs to have a name. Without an accepted term the concept is subject to a confusing and diffuse discourse that can easily work at cross-purposes.
To solve this problem of vocabulary, the Western world has hit upon the term “pro bono,” the short form of the Latin phrase pro bono publico, which has been popularized globally by the American legal profession. But how do you translate an Americanism derived from Latin into Mandarin? That’s not an easy question.
After several unsuccessful attempts to capture the meaning of pro bono through existing Chinese phrases, the participants achieved a breakthrough with a new term—lü shi or lü suo she hui ze ren—which means lawyers’ or law firms’ social responsibility. That phrase seemed to do the best job of capturing both the imperative and the unique role for private practitioners in China. And social responsibility (she hui ze ren) is a term of art that is already gaining currency there.
In China, the very notion of a legal profession is still evolving. But the essence of what pro bono represents—an opportunity for lawyers to contribute to the greater good according to their personal values and professional duties—seems to me to be captured well by the term “social responsibility.”
The conference appeared to forge a new consensus among public interest lawyers and the business lawyers who support them. As the Chinese newspaper Hainan Legal Times put it, the meeting “provided a platform for those working in the public interest law field, encouraging more lawyers to pay attention to the needs of disadvantaged groups and seek social justice while realizing their personal values.”
Related story: In China, Charting a Course for Public Interest Lawyers, 23 April 2012