CAIRO: Lawyers in Egypt are unfamiliar with pro bono practice and there exists no obligation or incentive for lawyers to offer free legal services to disadvantaged groups.
This was the conclusion of the discussion hosted on Thursday by the American University in Cairo’s Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement.
Speaker Lamiaa Youssef, director of the pro bono department at law firm Sharkawy and Sarhan, explained that there currently exists no legislation on pro bono practice in Egypt.
“Our firm is currently the only law firm in Egypt with a dedicated pro bono department in Egypt. The absence of any legislation obligating lawyers to offer pro bono services means that they feel no compulsion to do so, at the moment lawyers offer free legal services to friends and acquaintances on a purely informal basis, as a favour, Youssef explained.
While a provision in the law regulating the legal profession encourages lawyers to offer free legal assistance, it in no way obligates them to do so.
Sharkawy and Sarhan’s pro bono department – which was launched four months ago – offers free consultation (but not litigation) to non-governmental organizations on legal matters such as registration under the NGO law, employment of law issues and tax matters relating to profit generating activities.
Youssef described the case of a man who has invented something he wishes to patent. The firm is currently advising him on the law relating to intellectual property rights.
The firm has also created a website which offers an online legal database and a Q&A section where individuals can submit questions on the law relating to NGOs.
Youssef said that while there was no difficulty in establishing the pro bono department, suspicions still exist around the firm’s motivations.
“The firm is only two years old and we are all very like-minded people – it was very easy to build consensus. The challenge now is overcoming scepticism about the ‘what’s in it for us’ attitude. We see pro bono work as part of corporate social responsibility, she said.
There currently exists a financial incentive for firms to offer pro bono services in the form of tax reductions. However, Youssef said that the government is currently reviewing this law
She hopes that eventually other firms and lawyers will be drawn to pro bono work.
“As a corporate lawyer you work in the most glamorous, well-paid part of the Egyptian legal profession, but every now and again you see the darker side. I always joke at the firm that I’m paying for their sins, she said.