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Pro bono: a law student’s guide

updated on 08 November 2022

Volunteering pro bono has almost as many benefits for students as it does for members of the public in need of legal advice. Read our student guide to pro bono work to discover how pro bono work can propel your legal career.

Reading time: six minutes

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 that lawyers do for clients for free.

As with anything done voluntarily, it's not always obvious how volunteers benefit.

And why do so many lawyers use their hard-won and expensive legal education for the benefit of people who aren't paying?

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 can students and junior lawyers 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 that students can get involved in through student law clinics.

According to solicitors' pro bono group LawWorks' 2021 Clinics Network Report there were 9,771 clinic volunteers in 2021, with 6,227 of them being from law schools. Despite various restrictions and the impact of the covid-19 pandemic, as of December 2021 there were 306 clinics in the LawWorks Clinic Network, with 171 of these being law schools.   

Increasingly, aspiring lawyers 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 that 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 Street Law 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 require staff input, they’re less intensive and allow students to provide free legal assistance in a different way.

Read this LCN Says by the University of Nottingham Pro Bono Society for more: ‘Five key skills aspiring lawyers can gain from pro bono work.’

Another option for those not giving direct advice is to volunteer with a voluntary group whose work directly relates to the law. A few 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.

Read this LCN Says for more: ‘Volunteering at the PSU: why bother?’.

The experience gives them invaluable insight into the civil justice system as well as providing litigants in person with much-needed assistance and developing the sort of client-handling skills that 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-ridden law student, should you give up your spare time to work for free?

Read this LCN Says for more information on the benefits of pro bono: ‘Why you should get involved in pro bono.’

Rebecca Wilson, CEO of LawWorks, stated in a recent article with the New Law Journal that: “Undertaking pro bono can motivate employees, develop their skills and therefore improve overall performance. In this way, it helps with both staff recruitment and retention. Additionally, pro bono can be essential to meeting clients’ requirements and developing stronger client relationships.”

This highlights how important pro bono is to law firms and businesses, and how providing free legal advice can help you stand out from the crowd as an applicant or gain you external recognition in your law firm.

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

End of the 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’ve 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’s an old saying that if you want a job done, you should give it to a busy person – they’re the people who habitually have the drive and organisation to get things done.

I’ve 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’s not just organisational skills that 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 Free Representation Unit project, perform advocacy.

The Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) teaches skills such as live-client work: pro bono work hones team working and interpersonal skills, including leadership.

For example, legal-literacy and Street Law programmes help to develop:

  • communication;
  • public speaking;
  • note-taking;
  • research; and
  • presentation skills, which are invaluable in a working environment.

These are all skills that the LPC, SQE and LLB 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."