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Pro bono: how to find the right scheme for you

updated on 07 November 2023

Reading time: eight minutes

What’s pro bono and why is it important?

Pro bono is voluntary work undertaken by lawyers and law students aimed at improving access to legal advice. Getting involved in pro bono is not only a fantastic way to develop advocacy, communication and networking skills – all of which are crucial for a successful career in the profession – but it’s also a great way to offer your support to those unable to afford legal advice or representation.

Each year, LawWorks, which “supports a growing network of local independent pro bono advice clinics across England and Wales”, publishes a report on the pro bono work undertaken during the previous year. In 2022, it reported that more than 68,883 enquiries were handled, with 51,061 people helped. These results show an increase in practice from 2021. Since the pandemic clinics have been operating a reduced service and the cost-of-living crisis has also affected clients and volunteers. In 2022, clinics noted an “increase in clients presenting in crisis, compared to the year prior”. However, on a positive note, in both 2021 and 2022, the number of volunteers surpassed pre-pandemic numbers – in 2021 there were 9,771 volunteers and in 2022 there were 11,452 volunteers, compared to 9,545 volunteers in 2019.

LawWorks concluded: “With the covid-19 pandemic in the recent past and a cost-of-living crisis hitting hard, clinics continue to show their resiliency and agility in the face of rising demand for services and increasingly complex legal issues. This is not to say that it is easy for clinics to pivot and adapt each time crisis hits […]. Comparing some of the headline figures and trends across the last four years […] we see that: more clients are being signposted, clinics are increasingly providing representation, and clients with disabilities make up a larger percentage of clients helped.”

So, with greater need, comes the need for more volunteers. This article aims to set out the steps you should take to finding the right pro bono opportunity for you.

Finding the right pro bono opportunity  

There are several questions you should ask yourself before you start looking for a pro bono scheme:

  • Is there a particular area of law you’re interested in?
  • Do you know whether you want to qualify as a solicitor or barrister?
  • What’s your goal for getting involved in pro bono work?
  • What opportunities are available near you?

What type of law do you want to practise?

Don’t worry if you can’t answer this question straight away. Most of the practising lawyers we speak to advise future lawyers to keep an open mind when it comes to the area of practice they think they  want to qualify into. Lots of people claim that the theoretical and practical sides of each area of law are very different, so gaining some hands-on experience in a variety of areas is a useful way to find out which type of work you genuinely enjoy.

That said, if you have a specific practice area that you’re interested in, it’ll help to narrow your search for pro bono schemes so it’s definitely worth having a think about. Plus, any experience you then have will help you to identify whether it’s an area you enjoy and can form the basis for a successful application.

Do you want to qualify as a solicitor or barrister?

This is a very personal choice, with many of the solicitors and barristers we speak to putting their decision making down to their preferred working styles. If you’re unsure about which side of the profession you want to qualify into, head to LawCareers.Net’s Solicitors and Barristers hubs to find out what each job involves.

You can also read our Practice Area Profile interviews for insights into the type of work solicitors and barristers do and their advice for you.

There are lots of different pro bono opportunities out there, including Citizens Advice and the Free Representation Unit (FRU), which offer fantastic opportunities to get involved in real-life work and support the local community. While FRU is considered to be more useful for barristers due to the advocacy experience available, there are many skills that aspiring solicitors can also pick up from volunteering with FRU, including interviewing clients and witnesses, drafting documents, and preparing bundles. Ultimately, whichever side of the profession you’re hoping to join, pro bono experience will benefit your CV and applications.

What’s your goal for getting involved in pro bono work?

While there are obvious benefits to getting involved in pro bono – for example, the skills you develop and thus your success in applications and interviews – your motivations for volunteering shouldn’t be purely career focused. The work you undertake as a volunteer at any of these organisations is going to help those in need and will hopefully inspire you to continue to volunteer as your legal career progresses. If you’re in it just for yourself, you’re unlikely to get as much out of the experiences as you would if you’re genuinely there to support those who are unable to access the legal support they need for whatever reason.

You might also have your own personal motivations for working on a particular pro bono project. For example, a passion for championing human rights, a desire to help people secure community housing or you might want to help school students from underrepresented backgrounds understand their legal career choices. With a vast range of pro bono opportunities out there, you can very much tailor your volunteering to a cause close to your heart.

What opportunities are available to you?

Law school and university pro bono clinics

Lots of law schools and universities have their own pro bono clinics, which are fantastic places to start your pro bono journey.

The University of Law has a large pro bono offering, with many opportunities available each year, including its own Legal Advice Centre, public legal education programmes (eg, StreetLaw) and shadowing opportunities. There are opportunities available at each of the university’s campuses across the UK.

BPP University Law School also has pro bono opportunities on national and local scales available to the university’s current postgraduate students, which you gain access to by registering to BPP’s pro bono centre and taking the school’s pro bono pledge.

Meanwhile, the University of Bedfordshire’s student-led Law Clinic offers advice to members of the public on housing, consumer and employment law.

These are just three examples of universities offering pro bono opportunities. If you’re unsure whether your university has a pro bono law clinic, don’t be afraid to ask. And, if you don’t have a law clinic at your university, there’s always the option to set one up – they’ve got to start somewhere.     

Student law societies

Student law societies are fantastic hubs of legal information and opportunities, and many university law societies run pro bono initiatives and schemes for their members. In fact, some universities even have bespoke pro bono societies whose main goal is to give students the chance to participate in a variety of pro bono projects – from community projects to running workshops focusing on criminal justice or raising money for legal charities and causes. Take a look at our non-exhaustive directory of student law societies if you want to find out what’s on offer at your university.

Learn more about the benefits of pro bono with this LCN Says from ex-president of the University of Leicester Pro Bono Society Sonia Gandhi.                                                                                                   

Citizens Advice

Volunteers at the Citizens Advice network of independent charities offer free advice online, over the phone and in person to more than 2.5 million people. If you’re interested in volunteering with Citizens Advice, you can do so either with your local Citizens Advice branch, or with its Witness Service, which supports witnesses in court.

Free Representation Unit

FRU is a charity that represents individuals who couldn’t otherwise afford to be represented. If you’re interested in volunteering with FRU, you’ll have to undergo a rigorous training process, followed by a test. As an FRU volunteer, you’ll represent clients in front of social security and employment tribunals. You’ll prepare the case for trial and will be responsible for the advocacy too. You can find out more about volunteering with FRU via its website.

Just for Kids Law

Just for Kids Law is a London-based, award-winning charity that’s designed to support young people through challenging times, providing direct legal representation and advice to children and young people, among many other activities. Find out more about the charity’s work via its website. The charity lists volunteering vacancies online, so keep an eye on its vacancies page for upcoming opportunities.

Environmental Law foundation

The Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) runs a number of pro bono university clinics throughout the country that are supervised by local ELF professional members. The group provides over £1 million worth of work for free each year to communities and individuals facing environmental threats. Visit the ELF website to find out more.

Discover more pro bono opportunities with our list of pro bono initiatives.

What next?

The above is just a short introductory list of some of the opportunities on offer. If you’re looking for something else but aren’t sure what that is yet, register to the LawWorks website to access the full range of pro bono resources. Working in England and Wales, LawWorks aims to “connect volunteer lawyers with people in need of legal advice” who are otherwise unable to afford it so is a great place for you to start. LawWorks’ Students and Law Schools Project encourages the involvement of schools and students in pro bono work, recognising the importance, and need, to continue this work with future generations of lawyers.

Ellie Nicholl is a content & engagement coordinator at LawCareers.Net.