Lawyers give helping hand

The (London) Times, October 19, 1999

As part of its many faceted pro bono work, Allen & Overy, the international law firm, which has won the City Firm Award, is handling a political asylum case in New York while its Moscow office is advising Russian charities on how to become registered.

The firm, which specialises in corporate and banking law, is a member of Liberty's panel of solicitors. It has just finished a case involving the Church of Scientology, which was trying to stop Bonnie Woods, who had left the cult, from speaking out.

Sophie Forsyth, the firm's pro bono and community affairs officer, says: "The issue was freedom of speech and we represented the woman in libel proceedings. In the settlement she received an apology and damages." Allen & Overy is involved in a collaborative project with Eversheds and Simmons & Simmons working with the Wandsworth and Merton Law Centre. On Tuesday evenings its lawyers give advice at the centre's Battersea surgery. "Doing this adds interest and variety to work," Mrs Forsyth says. "They are talking to clients who are very different from those you normally see at a City firm. Their interviewing techniques are strengthened, particularly if English is not the client's first language."

The firm is also one of 23 law firms playing a role at the Citizens Advice Bureau at the Royal Courts of Justice. This was set up to help people who find themselves without a lawyer before the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

Mrs Forsyth says: "These people fall between two stools. They are not eligible for legal aid but cannot afford a solicitor. The bureau gives them help and support. It can just be a matter of explaining court procedure and the next steps they have to take."

Twelve of the firm's lawyers sit on the management committees of small charities through Business in the Community's Business on Board Scheme. These range from drugs rehabilitation to animal rescue. Half the 1,500 London staff are non-lawyers but want to participate in community work. Allen & Overy has therefore started mentoring pupils entering their GCSE year at secondary schools in Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Last year - the first of the scheme - eight staff volunteered to be trained as mentors. This year 22 are about to be matched to pupils. This year the firm is also piloting a reading scheme at St John's Primary School in Tower Hamlets. Ten people including two partners, two from business services, two from personnel, a secretary and trainees, go to the school every Monday lunchtime to hear children read.

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