updated on 30 April 2013
Since beginning my studies in law 10 years ago, I have had opportunities to be part of several fantastic pro bono programmes aimed at providing access to justice for many in society who could otherwise not afford to be represented. These include the University of Kent's Law Clinic, The Free Representation Unit (FRU) and, most recently, Amicus ALJ. But there are so many others out there to be aware of, depending on your interests and geographical location. Many can be found on the LawCareers.Net pro bono initiatives section.
Pro bono work is an excellent way to gain crucial and fantastic legal experience which will boost your credentials before applying for a training contract or pupillage. It undoubtedly gives a candidate an edge over other applicants. It also provides an excellent conversational point during interviews, giving you the chance to engage with your interviewer and show that you could well be the future of their law firm or chambers. Having pro bono experience sends out positive signals about a student's character and their passion for the law and the legal profession.
For many students this will be a great opportunity not only to just get experience of real legal problems, but to also meet and help the people facing those problems. There is no substitute for early, direct and meaningful client interaction for an aspiring lawyer. Pro bono can also give you the chance to meet leading lawyers who t give their valuable time and experience to help others in causes in which they deeply believe. Pro bono provides an opportunity to develop critical skills that are difficult to learn via training programmes, such as case management, problem solving, creative thinking, decision making, managing client expectations and client counseling.
As Tim Soutar of the International Bar Association, Pro bono and Access to Justice Committee recently said in an interview: "Not only is it important for society that lawyers engage in pro bono work in order to ensure that the under-privileged have access to justice - a basic human right - but it is also important for them as lawyers to make their training and experience available for the public good where they can. Whilst the benefits to a fairer and more just society are self-evident, the benefits to lawyers of doing pro bono work include: the satisfaction of being able to 'make a difference' (a reward that cannot be measured in monetary terms); the ability to obtain a wider range of legal experience and skills; to meet the expectations of employers and clients; in some jurisdictions, to satisfy conditions attached to the renewal of practising certificates; to keep in touch with the 'real world'; and, for those who have retired from full-time practice, an opportunity to continue to make use of skills, avoid withdrawal symptoms and use time constructively."
I would caution that students looking to get involved with a pro bono initiative should approach these organisations with the correct attitude. One should not just turn up to do the bare minimum simply for CV improvement. It is important to remember that pro bono organisations provide a vital service to those in society with a real need for legal assistance. Pro bono work should not just be used as a stepping stone to a high paid corporate role in the future.
Pro bono should inspire law students to want to make a difference and to fight injustice wherever they may find it and in whatever field in which they end up specialising. Even if it does not directly inspire, it should certainly frighten them into the realisation that even today miscarriages of justice can and do occur and that the ramifications, if they are not fought, can be catastrophic or even fatal to some of the most vulnerable in society. If this kind of work does not frighten or inspire a law student even a little, then I would question why that person would want to be a lawyer in the first place. Those of us who are in the social position to aspire to lucrative legal careers should be more than willing to spend some of our time and considerable legal skills to help others. My experiences of pro bono work have certainly left an impression on me and even though my career has changed from what I originally thought it would be like 10 years ago, I am still passionate about using the legal skills that I have developed to help others less fortunate than myself.
John van der Luit-Drummond is an active Amicus volunteer and remains involved with other pro bono schemes. See here to learn more about Amicus' training dates this year.