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A law student’s guide to pro bono

updated on 03 November 2020

Volunteering pro bono has almost as many benefits for students as it does for members of the public needing legal advice. Read on for LawCareers.Net's guide to pro bono work.

See this list of pro bono initiatives to find opportunities.

The phrase pro bono - or to give it its full title, pro bono publico - is one of the few remaining Latin phrases in law which is still widely used. It means "for the public good" and generally refers to work which lawyers do for clients for free. As with anything done on a voluntary basis, it's not always obvious how the volunteer benefits. And why do so many lawyers use their hard-won and expensive legal education for the benefit of people who are not going to pay? Here are the clear reasons why pro bono benefits not just the recipient, but also the person doing it – especially the law student or junior lawyer.

The work

What sort of pro bono work students and junior lawyers can get involved in? Many of the definitions of pro bono focus specifically on providing free legal advice, and in many law schools up and down the country this is something which students have the ability to get involved in through student law clinics.

According to solicitors' pro bono group LawWorks, at least 70% of law schools in the United Kingdom now run a student law clinic in which law students under supervision provide free advice to their local community. Others get involved by volunteering with a local advice agency (a local law centre or Citizens Advice Branch) to provide advice or assist in the running of the service. Increasingly, students are getting involved in pro bono client work through Innocence or Miscarriage of Justice projects, which involve working in groups on potential miscarriage of justice cases.

At the start of your career, opportunities to give advice can be hard to find, as unqualified advisers require supervision. One option which requires less direct support from faculty staff or qualified lawyers is to get involved in a Streetlaw™ or other form of ‘legal-literacy’ project. The concept of Streetlaw was developed in the early 1970s at Georgetown University in Washington DC, when a small group of law students embarked on a programme teaching local school pupils about practical aspects of law and the legal system.

It's an idea that can be extended to other groups in society: at Nottingham Law School (NLS), for example, one student developed an award-winning programme providing advice to prisoners and young offenders on the disclosure of convictions when applying for jobs. While such programmes do need some input from staff, they are less intensive and give students the opportunity to provide free legal assistance in a different way.

Another option for those not giving direct advice is to volunteer with a voluntary group whose work directly relates to the law. A couple of years ago, NLS set up a partnership with the Personal Support Unit enabling students to work in the court providing support short of advice and representation to litigants in person. The experience gives them an invaluable insight into the civil justice system as well as providing those faced with court with much needed assistance and developing the sort of client-handling skills which are so useful for a future career.

The benefits

There are many ways to get involved in pro bono activity, but why, as a debt-laden law student, should you give up precious spare time to work for free? A recent survey indicated that 80% of HR specialists at a group of leading law firms were most impressed by CVs which showed evidence of pro bono work (for both trainee and newly-qualified positions). This ranks pro bono higher than additional qualifications and paralegal experience. Pro bono work, it seems, adds a gloss to CVs and helps applicants to stand out from the crowd.

So here is a clear reason for doing pro bono work: in these cash-strapped times, it can help you get you a job! Surely this is more than enough reason to give up time to help others?

End of article? Perhaps, but it would be sad if this were the only reason to get involved in pro bono. Employers are keen on those who have engaged in pro bono work but there are also other benefits to be gained – and not just those that employers are interested in.

First, let's consider why employers are so keen on pro bono. There is an old adage that if you want a job done, you should give it to a busy person – they are the people who habitually have the drive and organisation to get things done. I have also noticed that those who commit to pro bono work find themselves developing vital personal organisation and time-management skills, which serve them well both at law school and at work.

However, it is not just organisational skills which are developed. Those participating in law clinics develop their skills in legal writing and drafting, hone their interview skills, carry out practically focused legal research and even, in some cases such as through our FRU project, perform advocacy. These are all skills that any self-respecting LPC (and some LLBs) will already teach but to quote one student: "The LPC can only do so much in terms of application of skills and knowledge. It was only when a genuine client came along that my LPC knowledge could be fully utilised and developed."

It is not only the standard LPC skills which such live-client work teaches: pro bono work hones team working and inter-personal skills, including leadership. For example, legal-literacy and Streetlaw programmes help to develop communication and presentation skills, which are invaluable in a working environment.

So it's clear that pro bono work can confer huge benefits in terms of developing important skills and boosting employability, in addition to serving the public good. It does not stop there. Many law teachers report that participation in live-client or other pro bono work boosts students' academic performance. Such experience enables students to see the law in context and to understand what it means on a deeper level. Lord Steyn famously said, "in law, context is all," and pro bono often provides the context to enable students to understand what experienced lawyers are talking about.

These are times when working for free can be difficult – debt, the lack of clear career progression and the competitive pressures of the business environment can all deter the young lawyer from doing pro bono. This masks the fact though that pro bono has benefits for both the recipient and the person providing the service, including the fulfilling sense of making a valuable contribution to the community. As one student put it: "The most surprising thing about the whole experience was how satisfying it was to provide a solution for the client. It reminded me of why I decided to study law in the first place."