Charity advisers: The Professionals - Part Three - The lawyers - Advice - and the price

Few things are capable of blowing a bigger hole in charity budgets than legal advice - except, perhaps, the consequences of not having it.

Lawsuits, and the threat of lawsuits, can be a significant drain on charity resources. With increased litigation from staff and volunteers, more intrusive Charity Commission regulation and the need to understand public sector law in order to deliver more services, the cost can only increase.

This all spells more money for charity lawyers, who can often earn in an hour what staff earn in a week. But according to Andrew Phillips, who founded voluntary sector law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite, charity lawyers are a relatively impoverished bunch.

"If I had devoted the past 30 years of my life to being a commercial lawyer rather than a charity lawyer, I would have earned five or 10 times more," he says. "You don't head in the direction of charities if you want to pile up cash, because the difference in remuneration is massive. You don't get those premium jobs."

Full-time charity lawyers are a modern phenomenon. Until the 1980s, solicitors often gave free advice to local charities, but as the sector grew more sophisticated, more formal arrangements emerged.

In 1990, Bates Wells & Braithwaite established the Charity Law Advisory Service for Solicitors to advise lawyers who help local voluntary organisations.

The Charity Law Association was established in 1992 to bring charity lawyers together. Today, most large charities have their own lawyers or legal teams - but, because law is complex, they still need advice on specialist issues such as intellectual property law.

But if lawyers have to be paid, how do you know you're getting a good one? The Law Society isn't much help. "We don't advise people," says a spokesperson. "It's a commercial decision and not something we get involved in." Charities are left to choose between the 30 or so big law firms, or from the hundreds of individuals offering legal advice.

At least with lawyers you know you're getting someone who has studied law. But Anne-Marie Piper, who chairs the Charity Law Association and worked on the Cancer Research UK merger, which involved 3,000 staff and a £200m turnover, thinks many don't know enough about charity law. "My concern is that a lot of charities are taken for a ride," she says. "It's not just about value for money - it's about getting expertise."

Big firms often charge big fees but Piper, a partner at Farrer & Co, says they do a great deal of work for the sector behind the scenes, often through the Charity Law Association. "The sector has traditionally had bad laws because nobody from the sector has been charged with looking at them," she says. "If there is new banking legislation, banks throw a huge amount of money at engaging with the Government to get the laws they want. Who does that for the charity sector?

"Organisations such as the NCVO and Acevo are always saying what the law should be, but they don't have any lawyers. It's the CLA that puts in the hours behind the scenes."

Others believe the cheaper option is adequate for most regular charity business. Community Matters, a federation of 1,100 community associations, trains its staff on basic legal issues, such as governance and trading, so they can pass on advice to members for free or to other organisations for £120 a day. It has acquired particular legal expertise on community buildings - the focus of much of its work.

"One of the problems we find is that people go to local lawyers for help with specialist issues," says David Tyler, national director of Community Matters. "Unless they know the ins and outs of charity law, they are not going to be able to help them as well as we could."

'IF IT'S FREE, TAKE CARE ...'

Pro bono isn't always for the good

It seems too good to be true, and some people think it is. Pro bono, a Latin phrase meaning 'for the good', is used to describe legal work undertaken voluntarily. Faced with the choice of pro bono or astronomical solicitors' fees, many charities can't resist the free option.

But not everyone believes it's the right one. Geraldine Peacock, former chair of the Charity Commission, says: "I'm not convinced pro bono is a good option for charities. I question the value of free advice."

Anne-Marie Piper, chair of the Charity Law Association, agrees. "If you are a charity with a multi-million pound income, there is no way you should be scrimping and saving to get it," she says. "Pro bono legal work often turns out to be poor. Charities are major not-for-profit businesses with intellectual rights that run into millions. It isn't appropriate for them to receive pro bono advice."

Others take a different view. A Charity Commission spokeswoman recommends charities always ask if pro bono or discounted rates are available. "Pro bono can sometimes enable charities to get access to services they couldn't otherwise have," she says. "It might be free, but you should still expect certain standards."

Leading charity lawyer Andrew Phillips also dismisses the view that it's worthless. "Have we got so sunk in unmitigated materialism that we take that view?" he asks.

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