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Inspiring Women in Law - An interview with Clara Pacce Pinto Serva: the pro bono work shaping human rights projects in Brazil

Latin Counsel spoke with Clara Pacce Pinto Serva, partner at TozziniFreire Advogados leading the Business and Human Rights practice, about the values behind her work, the human rights challenges persisting in business production chains, and the pro bono initiatives she has led in Brazil. Her expertise includes developing compliance programs, negotiating with regulatory bodies, and coordinating award-winning projects such as trans inclusion initiatives and legal guidance in marginalized communities like Heliópolis.


Marina Vanni

Latin Counsel: What areas does TozziniFreire focus on in their pro bono practice? What is the latest project that you have worked on?

Clara Pacce Pinto Serva: Our main goal is to generate positive social impact through pro bono. For this reason, we focus on developing or engaging in projects that have a positive impact on fundamental rights and the rights of different minority groups, such as LGBT, gender, race, disability, and others.

All of TozziniFreire’s lawyers, partners, and interns from different practices can get involved with our pro bono program. All projects that are based on fundamental rights have the direct involvement of our Business and Human Rights and pro bono team.

We aim at long-term relations, so we focus on creating new partnerships with NGOs when there is a possibility of contributing to long-term impact (and not only in a single agreement or assessment). New NGOs, which were not appointed by clearing houses, are submitted to a background check.

It is hard to mention one last project. In 2023, we conducted almost 130 projects for over 70 clients.

We had several initiatives on the rights of People with intellectual disabilities including a booklet with easy read (an accessibility technique) and advocacy efforts for the right to an inclusive education at the Supreme Court.

But I am safe to say that the ‘Mutirões’ (legal joint efforts) are probably some of the projects that I am proudest of.

The first one is the legal joint effort in one of the largest favelas of São Paulo, the community of Heliópolis, that aims to provide people with legal guidance on a wide range of topics, such as family, social security, labor, criminal law, etc. It started in 2019, and after being suspended during the pandemic, was resumed in 2023, having already provided about 800 legal guidance. In 2023, 1,500 hours were dedicated by 123 professionals.

We also gather volunteers to rectify documents of trans people, adjusting their name and/or gender. We have had 26 people counseled, 13 certificates rectified, and about 400 hours dedicated by 44 volunteers since December 2022, who provide advice, obtain all the necessary documents, and conduct the proceedings within the registry office. As an internal policy, we also provide pro bono support and cover all costs for trans employees who wish to rectify their names and gender in their legal documents.

But what is more important is the fact that we also take care of our own. As a major law firm, with 1,200 members, we have staff from all realities. So, in 2022, we created the project TFOrienta, to guide people who work in the administrative and outsourced areas of TozziniFreire about their rights, helping them to resolve their legal problems, free of charge, in matters of family, social security, criminal, tax law, etc. The project, which provided guidance to around 50 people in 2023, seeks to generate 3 dimensions of positive impact: (i) awareness of rights; (ii) improvement in access to justice and resolution of specific legal issues; (iii) bringing our administrative staff and senior leadership teams closer, improving corporate culture, the sense of belonging and inclusion.

LC: What are the main values behind your pro bono work?

CPPS: I know it might seem cheesy or utopian but we do believe that we can promote real change in society through pro bono, and we have had some interesting examples that show us that we are in the right direction.

In 2018, we started working for trans rights. As we walk the walk and talk the talk, the pro bono work also raised awareness internally and externally about gender identity. I remember that once a lady who works in the cafeteria came to me to say thank you: due to one of our presentations, she understood that she didn’t have a daughter – she had a son.

We believe that a serious quality legal service can be a tool for positive impact. We conduct public interest litigation, draft booklets, and other materials to raise awareness and advocate for the construction of public policies for guaranteeing fundamental rights, among other ways to promote individual and collective rights.
Our pro bono work is based on the idea that positive impact doesn’t just come from the result of the NGO’s work, but from the way the work is conducted, by whom, to whom, and with which objective. For this reason, we follow the United Nation’s saying of "leave no one behind", adding another one commonly used in Brazil by the community of people with disabilities: "Nothing for us without us".

Finally, we also believe that coherence is the keyword.  It comes from the humble and necessary perspective that a single person will never be able to anticipate all the needs of each person or group of people. If we aim to create a positive impact for transgenders, the project will most likely be led by a trans professional within our firm. The same goes for projects focused on gender, disabilities, race, etc., that we – to the maximum extent possible – develop with representativeness and engaging with allies (people that do not belong to a certain group but support the cause).

LC: What are key aspects to take into consideration when developing a human rights compliance program?

It is like going to the doctor. You cannot expect to go into the medical office and request a prescription. First, you need to get adequately examined and diagnosed, and then a suitable treatment can be prescribed.

The same happens with business and human rights. The first step is to get to know the risks and impacts on human rights that are caused, contributed, or directly linked to the company’s activities. Based on this assessment, the company can construct a proper corporate governance (including a Human Rights Policy) and a strategic plan to prevent, mitigate, and repair possible or potential human rights violations.

The other key element is that human rights are like taking a shower (as a client of mine used to say): yesterday’s bath doesn’t allow you not to shower today. Human rights are the same. It is something that companies need to put into their routines.

And I say repeatedly to clients that there is no better moment than the present. Do what you can, with the resources you have. Human rights due diligence is a complex and continuous process, but you can start from somewhere, and it should be from where you identify your most severe risks (what we call a prioritizing strategy). Perhaps from one specific site/business unit? Or from your supply chain? Or you can start by drafting a human rights policy and reviewing your standard contractual provisions. Small steps are equally necessary for a long journey.

LC: What are some indicators that can be used to measure the success of a social impact program? Can you tell us more about a successful project that you have worked on?

CPPS: I believe that the success of a social impact program reflects on non-measurable indicators. Colleagues that come work with us because they identify with the values we fight for; the impact you have on people that you will never meet in person or even hear from them… I had several beautiful examples of this taste over the last few years.

I recently received a message from a young lawyer telling me that she was unhappy with her professional life for many years but never thought that it could be possible to have a successful career and be dedicated to a positive impact at the same time. After learning about our programs, she decided to shift her career and contacted me because she had finally found a job in Human Rights.

But this is a specific example. We monitor indicators, such as the number of volunteers, pro bono clients, dedicated hours, and the corresponding amount donated. For each project, we assess the positive impact uniquely – as each of them seeks a different kind of impact. For instance, I cannot measure the impact of a public interest litigation with the same methodology used for a legal joint effort or a booklet. And, regardless of the initiative, we always seek feedback both from our volunteers and the beneficiaries, as there is no better way of learning about the impact than by hearing from those who were engaged.

I’ll give you one example of the Heliopolis legal joint effort. An elderly lady came once seeking to retire. With our help, she managed to obtain the retirement very quickly. Since then, she went to multiple editions of the project just to say "Hi" to the volunteers and tell them how much she appreciated the project.

Another beautiful example is the rights of people with intellectual disabilities. In 2019, we launched a booklet explaining the rights of people with intellectual disabilities, prepared with an accessibility technique called easy to read – so that the person with intellectual disability could understand their rights. The material was prepared by 4 institutions – TozziniFreire, JP Morgan Bank, and 2 local NGOs -, and had a massive dissemination by that time. Last year I received a call from the CEO of a major company telling me that he wanted to work with us, as we were a law firm that understood and took seriously the rights of his daughter.

So, although we track and monitor the positive impact, very often the most beautiful part of such impact is the one that you are not able to see.

LC: Based on your experience, what are today’s most urgent human rights issues in business production chains?

CPPS: It varies a lot depending on the sector, but they all have the same root cause: the lack of understanding of the company about their impacts.

For many companies, it will be fighting modern slavery, child labor, and other kinds of violations of working conditions. For others, it can be the rights of indigenous and traditional communities. But there is a common factor in most of the violations: inequality. Inequality is a global issue that needs to be taken more seriously. Inequality between countries makes it possible to pressure some countries into loosening their legislations regarding companies respecting human rights; between local communities, it increases rates of modern slavery, as people are obliged to accept undignified working conditions to survive; between genders, increases the levels of domestic violence (notably economic violence) and of sexual exploitation.

An effective and positive tool for companies in this sense is "living wage": calculating the cost of living in each region in which they operate, instead of simply using the minimum wage defined by local governments that are frequently outdated or insufficient.

LC: In your opinion, what is one relevant example of progress made in Brazil in the field of human rights law? What challenges remain?

CPPS: This is a quite challenging question, as we have multiple issues. A noteworthy example of progress is the creation of the Ministry of Human Rights and Citizenship in 2023, with an internal department for Business and Human Rights, both led by very qualified professionals, such as Minister Silvio Almeida and Luiz Gustavo Lo Buono.

We also had many changes in our legislation, such as the new law on equal pay between men and women, and the National Policy on the Rights of the Populations affected by dams (of December 2023). But we still lack a law on human rights due diligence, which leaves us a bit behind the global tendency.

Also, there is still a common public misunderstanding of human rights. Many think that human rights refer only to international duties for the State of Brazil, or that it only refers to the rights of people incarcerated. So we need to raise awareness about human rights – the concept, the extent, and the application of it. "Human rights" stands for all individual, collective, or diffuse fundamental rights declared by national or international documents, having – what we call domestically –horizontal effectiveness, which means it creates obligations between private individuals and organizations to respect such rights.

LC: What sparked your passion to enter the field of human rights?

CPPS: At the beginning of my career, I believed that I would need to choose between social impact (which I was told was only possible in public careers or the third sector) or private initiative (which I heard so many times as being the right place for my professional and intellectual development). Through my volunteering experiences and within TozziniFreire, I learned that the two passions could go hand in hand.

I have always been committed to social projects as a life goal, including through volunteering and my academic background, in which I focused on researching the rights of homeless people, the social function of law and pro bono law and, with my Master’s degree, in consensual resolution of conflicts involving Human Rights.

I first entered the firm in the dispute resolution practices in 2011. After a 6-month leave as a volunteer at a therapeutic community to assist in the recovery of chemical-dependent women, I decided to shift my career to focus on social impact and for a fairer society. Driven by this desire, I was responsible for reformulating practices and creating a pro bono coordination area in TozziniFreire. Today, besides coordinating the firm’s pro bono practices, I am the partner responsible for the Business and Human Rights area, the first of its kind in Brazil. So I can now say – without a shadow of a doubt – that it is a dream come true.

LC: What is a professional achievement you are extremely proud of?

CPPS: Having a team composed of people who come from groups in vulnerability, shows the market how you can provide a work of excellence and promote affirmative action. They aren’t great professionals just among the groups they represent or belong to: they are great, period. But those groups (women, members of the LGBTQ community, people of African descent, etc.) are frequently excluded from certain spaces or lack access to the same opportunities. So it is beautiful to see how we can be coherent between what we practice and what we preach.

Learn more about Clara

TozziniFreire Advogados

Interview by: Marina Vanni

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