Pro bono and law students: what's in it for me?

Director of Nottingham Law School’s Legal Advice Centre, Nick Johnson outlines the benefits of pro bono and explains why those on the receiving end of free legal advice are not the only ones who stand to gain.

To anyone who knows what pro bono means, the question "what's in it for me?" would initially seem an odd one. 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 can be translated as "for the public good" and generally refers to work which lawyers do for clients for free. As with anything done on a voluntary basis, it's not always obvious what benefit accrues to the volunteer. And why – when lawyers can reputedly command spectacular salaries – would they be remotely interested in using their hard-won and expensive legal education for the benefit of people who are not going to pay? Below I set out 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

It is worth taking a little time to consider what sort of pro bono work students and junior lawyers can 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 which students have the ability to get involved in through student law clinics.

According to solicitors' pro bono group LawWorks, at least 70% of law schools in the United Kingdom now run a student law clinic in which law students under supervision provide free advice to their local community (see here for details). Others get involved by volunteering with a local advice agency (a local law centre or the Citizens Advice Bureau) to provide advice or assist in the running of the service. Increasingly, students 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 which 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 of our students 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 some input from staff, they are less intensive and give students the opportunity to provide free legal assistance in a different way; this year we are also supporting a student-led project providing guidance on the law relating to female genital mutilation.

Another option for those not giving direct advice is to volunteer with a voluntary group whose work directly relates to the law. Recently, our law school set up a partnership with the Personal Support Unit which has enabled students to work in the court providing support short of advice and representation to litigants in person. The experience gives them an invaluable insight into the civil justice system as well as providing those faced with court with much needed assistance and developing the sort of client-handling skills which 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-laden law student, should you give up precious spare time to work for free? A recent survey indicated that 80% of HR specialists at a group of leading law firms were most impressed by CVs which showed evidence of pro bono work (for both trainee and newly-qualified positions). This ranks pro bono higher than additional qualifications and paralegal experience. Pro bono work, it seems, adds a gloss to CVs and helps applicants to stand out from the crowd.

So here is a clear reason for doing pro bono work: in these cash-strapped times, it can help you get you a job! Surely this is more than enough reason to give up between five and 15 hours a week to help others?

End of article? Perhaps, but it would be sad for us as a profession if this were the only reason to get involved in pro bono. As a solicitor and law teacher – and someone who has been involved with pro bono for a number of years – I can see why employers are keen on those who have engaged in pro bono work. To be frank, those who do are often an impressive bunch of committed people whom many employers would give their eye-teeth to recruit – even when they’re overwhelmed with applications for training contracts. There are also other benefits to be gained – and not just those that employers are interested in.

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.

First, let's consider why employers are so keen on pro bono. There is an old adage 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 which 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 FRU project, perform advocacy. These are all skills that any self-respecting LPC (and some LLBs) will already teach but to quote one of our students: "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."

It is not only the standard LPC skills which such live-client work teaches: pro bono work hones team working and inter-personal skills. One former NLS student, Alex Simmonds, put it very cogently when he said about developing his prison education project, “the experience of organising a team of volunteers and dealing with external agencies helped me develop valuable leadership and organisational skills". Alex managed a team of 17 volunteers and dealt with a number of external organisations to deliver the programme, equipping him with a range of skills which are nigh on impossible to develop in the seminar room. Legal-literacy and Streetlaw programmes such as these help to develop communication and presentation skills, which are invaluable in a working environment - and are much more useful than many students realise.

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 teachers 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 famously said, "in law, context is all," and pro bono often provides the context to enable students to understand what experienced lawyers are talking about.

These are times when encouraging students to work 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. Ultimately, perhaps, the most important benefit is the sense of personal satisfaction that doing pro bono work gives. As one of our Centre students 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."

That's a satisfaction which, from personal experience, I can thoroughly recommend.

Nick Johnson is director of the Nottingham Law School Legal Advice Centre.

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Recent comments

Anonymous | 08/11/2016 17:57 PM

Thanks a lot for this article. It answered questions I had in my mind.