Ten questions for… Helen Rogers, Senior Pro Bono Manager at A&O
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Helen is the Senior Pro Bono Manager at A&O, leading the central team that coordinates the firm's global programme of pro bono work. She is also chair of trustees at the Law Centres Network – the membership body representing Law Centres and the free legal advice sector across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Here, Helen explains the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the free legal advice sector, why law firms need to offer a collective response, and why Seville is the first place she'd like to visit when travel restrictions are lifted…
Describe yourself in 30 words
I posed the question to my 11 year-old son who told me I am "mostly patient and a good cook". I’ll take that.
After being a fee-earner, what motivated you to move into a full-time pro bono role?
I’ve always been interested in current affairs and social justice. For a long time, I was torn between law and journalism – in the end, I married a photojournalist and became an employment lawyer. Although I enjoyed my work, I always felt I wanted to do more to improve the lives of others. Discovering that a role existed where I could combine elements of everything that motivated me was an irresistible opportunity.
I spent a lot of time drinking coffee with people who were kind enough to help me find a way into the pro bono sector. After a six-month secondment, I knew I’d found a role I loved. Now I use my skills as a lawyer to assess and understand charities’ legal needs and create opportunities for my incredible colleagues at A&O to provide free legal advice to charities and individuals.
What impact is the Covid-19 crisis having on pro bono and community investment work at A&O?
Wherever possible, the pro bono and community investment team has been moving all projects on-line –delivering workshops as webinars and using new safeguarding technology to allow mentoring sessions with young people to continue. All face-to-face legal advice clinics are now telephone clinics, and we're working closely with our charity partners to address the needs of clients who may be struggling with a range of issues, both legal and personal.
We are also in discussions with our partner NGO on the Greek island of Lesvos to provide volunteer support via video link for its asylum lawyers. Before this crisis we were sending lawyers to Lesvos to support the work in person – as Geert Glas talks about on p16 in Increasing Access.
One of the positive outcomes is that law firms are starting to collaborate more on pro bono work. In times of crisis – for example the Grenfell Tower fire in London, the Australian bushfires and the U.S. Administration’s immigration orders – the sector has learned that charities and NGOs cannot cope with the demand of law firms all wanting to ‘help’, so a unified approach is essential.
From the outset of the Covid-19 crisis, A&O has been collaborating with other law firms to review the potential legal issues emerging in different areas of law and to make global resources available via a single platform. In Paris, we're reviewing a range of legal areas, including employment law and contractual matters; in the UK we're focusing on issues faced by refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons as a consequence of Covid-19. We are also working with the Thomson Reuters Foundation on a series of webinars for charities and NGOs in different countries on insolvency and commercial contracts.
What impact can you see this crisis having on charities and NGOs?
The pressure on the charity sector is immense. For the most part, charities operate on a tight budget and live with constant uncertainty about funding. The impact of this crisis has accelerated operational difficulties at a time when front-line charities need and want to do more to support vulnerable clients and communities.
Charities and NGOs face the same problems as all businesses – how can they look after staff and pay their wages, adapt to delivering services remotely, maintain an adequate level of income and fulfil existing payment or grant conditions? Depending on the duration of the lockdown and recovery periods in different parts of the world, the sad reality is that many of these organisations won’t survive the Covid-19 crisis. Pro bono colleagues in Asia are already seeing this.
Describe your perfect day off work – when not in lockdown
Walking my dog, Molly, through the fields near my house and ending up in town to have brunch in the sunshine with my husband and children. Ideally I’d have time to read the newspaper and have a coffee on my own first. In the afternoon, a wander around the V&A Museum with my best friend and tea in the café, then dinner with friends in the evening. Food features pretty heavily I realise!
What is the first place you’d like to travel to when the restrictions are lifted, and why?
It would have to be somewhere that could quickly satisfy all the things I’m missing right now, somewhere vibrant – pavement cafes for people-watching, great food and wine, live music, museums and galleries, hot, sunny days and warm evenings. I love Seville and it was one of the places we stayed on our honeymoon, so full of great memories.
Tell us something not many people know about you
When I was 18, I worked in a paediatric hospital and rehabilitation centre in Jerusalem. I'm neither Israeli nor religious but it's a place that has long fascinated me for its history, politics and religions.
I was the only volunteer there intending to be a lawyer rather than a doctor or physio, but they must have seen potential in me as, after a basic induction, they gave me a uniform and introduced me to the patients. It was a time of real highs and lows: friendships and losses, a country and a region of beauty but instability, and living independently in an exhilarating city. Most of all, watching multi-faith medical teams at work in the hospital, treating Israeli and Arab children together while bombs exploded daily in the Old City, brought home to me the importance of being involved in positive change. That has never left me.
What words of advice would you give to someone interested in getting involved in pro bono and community investment work?
People are moved by causes that interest them or affect someone they care about – work out what that is for you and be open to opportunities to get involved. You might find things in this publication that inspire you, or projects that your colleagues are doing. Be curious and find out more. Start small, take a risk to do something new and I guarantee that working with others interested in the same cause will give you the appetite to do more. Being part of a like-minded team is very motivating, and seeing your work achieve good things for others is a truly great feeling.
Start small, take a risk to do something new and I guarantee that working with others interested in the same cause will give you the appetite to do more.
Helen Rogers, Senior Pro Bono Manager at A&O
Who do you admire most, and why?
There are so many people I admire in the charity sector but the name I keep coming back to is Julie Bishop, Director of the Law Centres Network. Her name isn’t known to many outside the free legal advice sector and she would hate it if it were. Julie is determined, unassuming and passionate about her work and manages to speak truth to power (most often the UK Government) in a way that is disarming and persuasive. I hugely admire her resilience to guide Law Centres through innumerable challenges year on year and her commitment to working for a future where society is more just and equal for all.
My proudest achievements in pro bono work is…
I don’t know where to start! Every day at A&O I’m lucky enough to work with some of the best lawyers in the profession who give their legal skills for free to charities and communities all over the world. I don’t consider these matters my achievements, but I’m proud of every piece of pro bono work we do as a firm. We can’t save the world but we can, and do, apply our legal training and intellect to address the problems and inequalities that make life hard for many people.
We can’t save the world but we can, and do, apply our legal training and intellect to address the problems and inequalities that make life hard for many people.
Helen Rogers, Senior Pro Bono Manager at A&O
I’d like to mention one matter that I think shows the best of A&O and what we can achieve collectively:
In 2010, I worked with colleagues, funders and government to prevent the imminent closure, due to lack of funds, of South West London Law Centres (SWLLC) – one of England’s largest Law Centres and a long-term pro bono client of A&O. The Legal Aid Minister at the time, Lord Bach, said he would commit GBP235,000 of government funds to save the Law Centre, provided law firms contributed the balance of funds. A group of law firms and funders led by A&O, the London Legal Support Trust and the Baring Foundation raised GBP80,000 within a few weeks and kept the doors open.
Over the coming months, A&O lawyers in London gave SWLLC hundreds of hours of pro bono advice on restructuring, employment, tax, real estate and commercial contracts, and specialists in IT, Marketing, HR and Business Services all gave their time to strengthen SWLLC’s infrastructure for years to come. It all paid off. Despite constant funding challenges, in February this year the Centre celebrated its 45th anniversary and continues to help thousands of clients every year to access justice and uphold their everyday rights. A&O lawyers still give pro bono advice at Battersea’s free legal advice clinic every Thursday evening.