Russell King describes how, through the Lawyers Volunteering for the Arts scheme, he has helped Peckham Platform establish itself as an independent charity and transformed himself from a visual arts philistine.
As a lawyer working chiefly with aircraft, ships and satellites, and with my sole contribution to artistic endeavour being the exception to my art teacher’s universal theory that anyone can draw, it is safe to say that up until mid 2013 I was far from an obvious candidate for a trustee of an arts organisation. Back then I was just one of more than 100 lawyers volunteering for a London-based initiative bringing free, legal advice to the arts sector. But I will be entering 2015 as a trustee of a new independent gallery and commissioner of contemporary visual art.
Lawyers Volunteering for the Arts (LVFA) was set up in 2012 by a group of London law firms who wanted to offer pro bono legal support to the arts community. Based on a successful US model, the organisation was co-founded in London by Rebecca Greenhalgh and Kate Ashton, pro-bono manager and partner respectively at my previous law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP. As the LVFA website explains: “Lawyers spend years at university, law school or training on the job and we all believe that we have a responsibility to share that expertise with everyone, not just those who can afford it. We know there are many solicitors and other legal professionals who want to contribute their legal skills to the arts and cultural community; in this economic climate there are many members of the arts community that could benefit from free legal advice. As such our group has decided to try and bring these groups together.” The scheme has helped a huge range of organisations already, from commissioners of experimental artwork to community theatre groups, local arts festivals, poetry charities and a choral society.
For law firms that are truly committed to pro bono work ... service standards are the same as for those who pay
Simple but very effective, LVFA has benefits for everyone involved. It pairs those in the arts with a specific issue to tackle with a qualified solicitor who can help. For the volunteers and their firms, pro bono schemes such as the LVFA broaden experience and aid career development, helping make better lawyers, and indeed people.
Volunteering through LVFA for Peckham Platform has certainly exposed me to new people, working environments and challenges that I would have been unlikely to come across in the day job. It has also helped me to gain hands-on experience in an area of law that I previously had very little practical knowledge of, and has turned me from a contemporary visual arts philistine to a keen appreciator of the medium.
Although part of the appeal of the LVFA for the volunteer is to try something new, none of the member firms of the LVFA would ever take anything on that they do not have the skills or resources to deliver. It would not be fair or good for the charity, nor the firm. For law firms that are truly committed to pro bono work, non-paying clients are treated as clients as much as anyone else and service standards are the same as for those who pay.
Outlined in full online, the LVFA process starts with a simple form that is filled in by the organisation seeking help. The LVFA team looks at the issue and whether there is a firm that is able to advise. It might be that the issue has a precedent and in such a case there may be ‘off the shelf’ memos or advice notes that can be turned around extremely quickly. In other cases – as with Peckham Platform – the task at hand can be more complex and require a bespoke response.
Emily Druiff, Executive Director of the organisation then known as Peckham Space, was seeking help in steering the organisation into a new structure independent of its founding partner, University of the Arts London (which she wrote about in AP). Living locally, I felt I had to be the lawyer to help. I responded to Rebecca’s plea and paid Emily a visit in person, together with my colleague Luke Baker. We were both quickly drawn into a cause and organisation that we believed in and felt we could provide real assistance.
The past few years have seen considerable change in Peckham. It is a familiar situation of rising rents and pressure on small business as the area becomes ever more desirable. The more I found out about Peckham Space, as it then was, the more I wanted to be involved. With its model of commissioning new work in partnership with community groups, Peckham Platform spoke to me, as its work helps the community examine itself and engage with its locality. I came to believe passionately in the gallery’s mission and so was delighted when some months after moving to a new firm (and with my period of pro-bono work for Peckham Platform complete) I was asked by Emily and chair Richard Watts to join the board.
In this new capacity I do not give legal advice as such. I am on the board as a lay person but can draw on my professional experience to refer the organisation back to LVFA or seek further legal assistance (which may come from my own firm) if formal support is required. More generally, I hope that I turn my comparative artistic ignorance into an advantage. Arts organisations have plenty of experts in their field and sometimes, the constructive critique of someone less accustomed to a sector’s jargon and politics can be hugely valuable. I believe that it is always helpful for organisations to seek advice from people from outside their world and frame of reference.
I am now one of ten trustees working to steer the organisation into its second year as an independent charity. Our priorities are as ever fundraising, then the Peckham co-design process through which we have an opportunity to ensure that our future premises match our ambition, and extending the reach of our organisation deeper and wider into the community.
Right now, LVFA is actively looking for more arts organisations to help. I would advise anyone that thinks they might benefit from talking to LVFA to do so, but to think carefully about the specific questions that they would like addressed. This helps the scheme find the right lawyer in an appropriate practice area who is likely to be able to advise quickly and expertly. I would also encourage any lawyers thinking of getting involved to do so.