by Tony Vidler
Why would pro bono clients deserve any lesser standards of ethical behaviour, professional competency or application of skill?
Logically the answer must be “they don’t” – they are entitled to the same levels of professional care, diligence and skill that a professional would bring to a commercial engagement.
Ultimately the pro bono concept is about providing a public service, or giving to society some of one’s professional expertise and time. It is a commitment to using ones expertise to improve society.
It cannot follow that pro bono work should be subject to a lower standard of care and diligence than any other professional engagement, as it is still absolutely a professional engagement to act for a client, and to work in their best interests.
This is an issue I have been pondering for some time, essentially triggered by an attempted pro bono project initiated in New Zealand last year by well meaning and caring professional financial advisers. During the organisation of this public service project many advisers asked whether they would obtain relief, or exemption, from the liability aspects of the governing law for financial advisers when they are providing pro bono service.
A reasonable question on the surface, as there is certainly potential commercial liability attached to the provision of financial advice in this country.
The more I pondered this question though the more strongly has become my conviction that the regulators here got it absolutely right in their response, which was that there would be no exemptions in professional or regulatory standards for pro bono work.
Pro bono clients ARE entitled to expect the same behaviour, and are entitled to the same protection – including full legal liability on the part of the adviser – as any other client. Whether the work provided was done for $1,000 per hour, or $100 per hour, or $0 per hour is an irrelevance.
A standard is a standard regardless of the commercial agreement underpinning it.
Professional standards and ethical expectations placed upon advisers engaging in pro bono work should be consistent, and the same as those applied to commercial work.
To do any less bring our ethics themselves into question.