updated on 15 June 2021
‘Pro bono’ is a shortened Latin phrase which means “for the public or common good”. This incorporates professionals and students providing free legal services to the public. Jurisdictions, like South Africa, have made it a mandatory obligation for professionals to undertake pro bono work. Most legal firms do some kind of pro bono work as part of their corporate social responsibility commitments. It is important to note that pro bono is not a substitute for legal aid. It should be an adjunct to legal aid.
I have been part of the pro bono society at the University of Leicester since my first year. I began as a legal researcher and publicity officer for one of the nine projects (Lawyers Without Borders Student Division), I then progressed to project director, which involved leading the project throughout my second year. At the end of my second year, I was elected president of the society. As part of this role, I oversee the operation of all nine projects, support all project directors, facilitate events and look after the wellbeing of all 250 members. Throughout this academic year, I also introduced three new projects.
Where can you get experience?
Most universities and law schools offer the opportunity for students to engage in pro bono work via a pro bono society. This could be through their free legal advice clinic or street law project. Participating in pro bono work can provide you with legal experience and a multiplicity of transferable skills desired by graduate recruiters. Some initiatives, like engaging in a legal advice clinic, will facilitate client interaction, and allow you to develop interviewing and drafting advice skills. Many pro bono societies offer a breadth of projects ranging from conducting legal research through Lawyers Without Borders Student Division to reviewing cases with Amicus.
If your university does not offer the opportunity to engage in pro bono work, you could begin a new society in accordance with your student union’s rules. You could establish numerous projects under the society, covering a range of social issues. This could be a ‘street law’ project that provides public legal education in the form of interactive presentations in local schools and community groups. Another could be a ‘miscarriages of justice’ project where students engage with criminal law cases with the goal of analysing and finding discrepancies within prisoners’ files that could lead to their conviction being quashed. Try and approach staff within your law school to gain some academic support.
There are many pro bono organisations such as LawWorks, Bar Pro Bono Unit and Access to Justice Foundation that are always seeking interns to support the administration of their organisation. It is possible to also volunteer with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, which could include giving information and advice to clients. It also ran its own ‘Remote volunteer recruitment campaign’ – this is now closed but there are other volunteering opportunities available.
Benefits of pro bono
I believe that all legal professionals have a duty to give back to the community and reduce the justice gap. These services can help marginalised communities that are denied access to justice. The cost of obtaining legal help is high and therefore inaccessible to many. There is a theory titled ‘The Public Assets Theory’, which suggests that a solicitor has a duty to give back in return for the “publicly created” statutory rights they benefit from. Pro bono work is not compulsory to undertake – it is a moral obligation, not a professional obligation. While engaging in pro bono work can help you to gain some legal experience, the primary purpose should not be forgotten.
For a law student, pro bono provides opportunities to gain experience in parts of the law that are outside their academic realm. Participants can engage in meaningful case research to developing clinical legal skills and public speaking. As well as developing skills required for employability, it enables students to find like-minded passionate students who are using their privilege for the better. In addition, it has been suggested that this work can increase positivity, as helping others can increase one’s sense of wellbeing and worth.
Personally, pro bono work has given me the platform to discuss societal issues that I am passionate about. I led a project that aimed to raise awareness about global human rights violations. As a result, I was able to host events covering issues such as ‘stop and search rights,’ ‘mental health among refugees and asylum seekers’ and ‘gender-based violence’. Further, I developed my leadership skills and confidence. My experience has helped me to navigate my future career.
One misconception is that only law students can engage in pro bono work, I can assure you this is not the case! The experience will also help non-law students who are hoping to pursue a career in law to demonstrate their aptitude and passion for the profession.
I recommend that everyone gets involved in pro bono work, it truly makes a difference to both the national and international community.
Sonia Gandhi (she/her) is a final-year law student at the University of Leicester and is currently the president of the university’s Pro Bono Society.