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Pro bono: a law student’s guide

updated on 26 October 2021

Volunteering pro bono has almost as many benefits for students as it does for members of the public in need of legal advice. Here is LawCareers.Net's student guide to pro bono work.

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 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 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 2020 law school report, more than 3,000 students took part in pro bono programmes over the 2019-20 academic year. In the student survey, 93% of respondents said that the law school they attended carried out pro bono work. Meanwhile, 72 law schools currently have 153 clinics registered to the LawWorks clinics network.

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 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 staff input, they are 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 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.

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

The experience gives them an invaluable insight into the civil justice system as well as providing litigants in persons 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.’

A 2020 case study by LawWorks concluded that “undertaking pro bono can motivate employees, develop their skills and help improve overall performance. It can help staff recruitment and retention. Pro bono can contribute to meeting client’s requirements and provide unique networking opportunities; being known for pro bono commitment can improve community perceptions and the reputation of the whole firm.”

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 is 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 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 saying 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 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 teaches: pro bono work hones team working and interpersonal skills, including leadership.

For example, legal-literacy and Streetlaw 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 and the 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."

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 lecturers 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 once said, "in law, context is all," and pro bono 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 eloquently 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."

For more on the benefits of pro bono: