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There is a long history of lawyers doing pro bono work, going back to medieval times and beyond; for many people, pro bono was the only means to seek redress or justice. Restrictions in the scope of legal aid and the impact of local authority spending cuts on law centres and advice agencies have contributed to a contemporary access to justice crisis, with those who cannot access legal aid and who cannot afford to pay potentially being denied advice or representation.
Pro bono is not, and should not become, an alternative to a properly funded system of legal aid – it simply cannot fill the vacuum and need caused by policy change and cuts – but its importance and value have never been greater.
Any lawyer has the ability (with the right temperament and commitment) to do pro bono that makes a difference, whether you become a lawyer in private practice or an in-house lawyer working for a company or a charity, or in local or central government. You may have legal expertise or knowledge which can help an individual or a charity to resolve a legal problem. What you definitely will have is valuable training, skills and aptitudes that are readily translatable to real-life situations and problems. And you can make a valuable pro bono contribution as student, trainee or pupil – early experience of pro bono can instil a passion and commitment that lasts a career and beyond.
Pro bono for students
LawWorks launched its Students and Law Schools Project (funded by the Law Society) in 2007. Since then, pro bono has strengthened and grown, and is increasingly seen as a key part of legal education.
The benefits of pro bono as a student, trainee or pupil can include developing legal skills, such as interviewing clients and drafting letters; gaining practical research skills, based on real legal problems for real clients; exploring practice in new areas of law; developing contacts and links to legal professionals, firms, charities and others; and making a contribution to your local community.
There are different ways to get involved in pro bono as a student:
- Legal education for the public – your law school may have links with local community groups or schools interested in knowing more about areas of law or the legal system. You could research relevant topics and prepare for or contribute to presentations and workshops.
- Student placement – your law school may not be able to support pro bono opportunities internally, but may arrange for you to volunteer with a local advice agency or community group.
- Legal advice clinic – your law school may run or be part of a legal advice clinic (including being part of the LawWorks Clinics Network, as below). With supervision, pro bono activity may include drafting letters, researching legal problems and face-to-face advice.
- Tribunal representation – the Free Representation Unit (FRU) provides a good opportunity for students to acquire advocacy experience. FRU volunteers help with case preparation and representation in tribunal cases.
- Internships with charities – legal and pro bono organisations such as LawWorks, the Bar Pro Bono Unit, the Access to Justice Foundation and the London Legal Support Trust are often looking for interns to support the work of their organisations. There may be opportunities with other charities and organisations.
The Bar Pro Bono Unit acts as a clearing house, matching barristers prepared to undertake pro bono work with those who need their help. Applications are reviewed by one of a number of senior barristers and the unit then makes a decision as to whether to try to find a volunteer barrister to assist.
LawWorks supports a dedicated student pro bono website (www.studentprobono.net) and also organises the annual Student Pro Bono Awards, run in partnership with the attorney general. By providing support and encouragement for student pro bono, it hopes to facilitate an interest and passion that will last and grow.
Pro bono for qualified lawyers
Opportunities for pro bono volunteering continue during training and pupillage. Increasingly, aspiring lawyers see opportunities for pro bono as informing their career decisions. For many, pro bono is an essential part of being a lawyer. It can help to build skills and confidence, develop teams and team spirit, and offers the chance to test oneself as a lawyer, perhaps in a new environment or a different area of law.
LawWorks is the operating name of the Solicitors Pro Bono Group. Established in 1997, it is a charity providing support for local pro bono advice clinics and acting as a clearing house for our members – largely law firms and in-house teams. In Scotland pro bono is supported by its sister charity, LawWorks Scotland.
LawWorks connects volunteer lawyers in England and Wales with people in need of legal advice who are not eligible for legal aid and cannot afford to pay, and with community groups and not-for-profit organisations that support them or their communities.
Its programmes include the following:
- The LawWorks Clinic Network – LawWorks supports a network of over 200 independent clinics, providing free advice to individuals, predominantly in the area of social welfare law (eg, social security benefits, housing, family and employment). Advice is delivered face to face, over the phone and via Skype.
- The Not-for-Profit Programme – LawWorks connects smaller charities and groups with the skills and expertise of lawyers, strengthening their capacity and avoiding or resolving problems.
- Secondary specialisation – In response to growing need for legal advice and representation, LawWorks is piloting a new project to train and supervise lawyers in firms and in-house teams to develop expertise in areas of social welfare law. This includes a project in London for solicitors taking on first-tier social security tribunal cases, and working with the charity Together for Short Lives to provide legal advice for families and carers of children with life-limiting conditions.
Working together to achieve more
In recent years, the coordination of pro bono in England and Wales has strengthened.
The annual National Pro Bono Week celebrates the breadth and impact of pro bono work (including internationally) undertaken by the legal profession throughout the year. Sponsored by the Law Society, the Bar Council and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, a range of events, including with a student focus, are held across the country.
The National Pro Bono Centre was established in Chancery Lane, London, to house and support national pro bono organisations and others working to maximise access to justice. The centre represents the creation of a single, physical hub for the coordination and development of national pro bono services (www.nationalprobonocentre.org.uk).
Pro bono has an important and significant contribution to make in enabling access to justice. The important debates about legal aid provision and policy reform will continue. Whatever direction your future career may take, you can personally make a difference through pro bono. It truly is part of being a lawyer.
Martin Barnes is the chief executive of LawWorks. For more information about LawWorks, visit www.lawworks.org.uk.