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Why you should get involved in pro bono if you want a career in commercial law

updated on 05 November 2019

Victoria Speed, joint director of pro bono and CSR at BPP University Law School, explains why it is important to get involved in pro bono – even if you are set on the City.

Most students who wish to study law will be familiar with the concept of volunteering their time and expertise for free, ‘pro bono’, to those who need legal assistance but cannot afford it. The term is short for the Latin phrase ‘pro bono publico’, for the public good. And while aspiring barristers and solicitors may applaud the intent, many are put off from volunteering because they think they don’t have the time, that it won’t dovetail with their intended career, or that they simply lack the necessary expertise or confidence to contribute.

Although such views are understandable, pro bono work offers opportunities for all students if they look a little deeper. Pro bono work offers incredible opportunities for aspiring lawyers. It equips them with relevant skills and unmatched experience regardless of the type of law they want to practise. It can also help students decide what type of lawyer they want to be.  

Nevertheless, for students faced with the challenges of an intensive law course, landing a training contract and ultimately carving out a career, pro bono work can seem low on the list of priorities. So why should you do it? Why should you devote time you feel you don’t have to a pursuit that is laudable but, at first glance, tangential? First thing’s first…  

What does pro bono work involve?

The range of tasks that volunteers can expect to carry out is enormous. Pro bono work can include such things as helping a tenant in a dispute with a landlord, advising a victim of domestic violence, or suggesting options for an employee who feels they have been unfairly treated at work.

How can I contribute as an unqualified student?

Although housing, family and employment law are niche areas of law, often not studied on law courses, student volunteers do not need any prior experience or particular expertise – though if the work involves children you may need a basic disclosure (DBS) check. You will not be left to sink or swim. Volunteers operate in a very forgiving environment. There will always be qualified lawyers and more experienced students on hand to give students support and guidance.

As students gain more confidence and expertise, they can opt to do more. Tasks can include interviewing clients to determine the nature of their case, offering practical support to a litigant-in-person, delivering a legal presentation in a school and drafting advice letters.

How is pro bono relevant to a career in a City firm?

Being a lawyer is essentially a ‘people job’. It doesn’t matter what area of law you ultimately specialise in. Nothing will acquaint you more readily with humanity in all its complexity, nor develop your people skills more rapidly, than pro bono work. It can help you understand how to handle complex cases or emotional clients. Pro bono cases teach you not to make assumptions and allow you to grow as a person who understands communities. It also helps you develop your concentration and trains you to keep calm in what can be difficult circumstances.

Moreover, pro bono work introduces students to all manner of individuals and situations. Most won’t be familiar with the challenges many pro bono clients face or realise that for some, the law is seen not as a system for delivering justice but as a tool of authority. But students will be better lawyers if they understand the role of law in society from the outset of their careers.

What legal skills can I learn from pro bono work?

Working with those who need access to justice but cannot afford legal services gives young lawyers the kind of hands-on experience of client interviewing, research and drafting skills that are essential in any area of law. It’s also incredibly useful for those who may feel they lack confidence – because they will get a lot of support and non-judgmental feedback.

Even relatively straightforward tasks, like explaining to a group of children in a school the law on sexting, can allow volunteers to hone their presentation and communication skills. Students learn to think and speak on their feet and to present an argument in simple, clear language.  

Simply put, candidates with pro bono experience have the edge and are often sought out by law firms because they know that if you are equipped with these skills, you can hit the ground running.

Fulfilling though it seems, how can I afford the time?

Pro bono work may only involve a few hours a month, though most volunteers try to do a stint weekly. I once heard a student ask a tax lawyer how she found the time to do pro bono work. She replied that she treats it like any other activity she cares about – you make the time.

Pro bono work not only teaches students how to manage their time effectively, but also how to balance unavoidable pressures with activities they find rewarding. In a profession that asks so much of employees, particularly in the early years, the ability to juggle work responsibilities with things you find personally fulfilling will become essential to your professional and mental wellbeing. Students can start to learn how to do this effectively when they take on pro bono work.

The question aspiring lawyers, even those with training contracts, should ask themselves is not “Can I make the time to do pro bono work?” but “Can I afford not to?”

Anything else?

The purpose of pro bono work is to give access to justice and legal education to those who lack the means to do so themselves. But in helping others, students invariably find out more about themselves.

Pro bono work allows you to become empowered and shows you what you are good at. It’s not just a question of gaining relevant skills and experience. Pro bono work will also allow you to understand what you really value, who you are and what you can bring to the profession, so it ultimately makes you a far better candidate. Indeed, some students discover that pro bono work is so compelling that they make a career out of it. 

Victoria Speed is joint director of pro bono and CSR at BPP University Law School, some of whose projects were shortlisted for this year’s LawWorks and Attorney General Student Pro Bono Awards.

BPP Law School can offer a range of pro bono opportunities for aspiring barristers and solicitors. Students who are interested should contact the university’s Pro Bono Centre.