updated on 04 September 2019
There is a long history of lawyers doing pro bono work, going back to medieval times and beyond; for many people, pro bono was the only means to seek redress or justice. Restrictions in the scope of legal aid and the impact of local authority spending cuts on law centres and advice agencies have contributed to a contemporary access to justice crisis, with those who cannot access legal aid and who cannot afford to pay potentially being denied advice or representation.
Pro bono is not, and should not become, an alternative to a properly funded system of legal aid – it simply cannot fill the vacuum and need caused by policy change and cuts – but its importance and value have never been greater.
Any lawyer has the ability (with the right temperament and commitment) to do pro bono that makes a difference, whether you become a lawyer in private practice or an in-house lawyer working for a company or a charity, or in local or central government. You may have legal expertise or knowledge which can help an individual or a charity to resolve a legal problem. What you definitely will have is valuable training, skills and aptitudes that are readily translatable to real-life situations and problems. And you can make a valuable pro bono contribution as student, trainee or pupil – early experience of pro bono can instil a passion and commitment that lasts a career and beyond.
Pro bono for students
LawWorks launched its Students and Law Schools Project (funded by the Law Society) in 2007. Since then, pro bono has strengthened and grown, and is increasingly seen as a key part of legal education.
The benefits of pro bono as a student, trainee or pupil can include developing legal skills, such as interviewing clients and drafting letters; gaining practical research skills, based on real legal problems for real clients; exploring practice in new areas of law; developing contacts and links to legal professionals, firms, charities and others; and making a contribution to your local community.
There are different ways to get involved in pro bono as a student:
The Bar Pro Bono Unit acts as a clearing house, matching barristers prepared to undertake pro bono work with those who need their help. Applications are reviewed by one of a number of senior barristers and the unit then makes a decision as to whether to try to find a volunteer barrister to assist.
LawWorks supports the development of law school clinics and also organises the annual Student Pro Bono Awards, run in partnership with the attorney general. By providing support and encouragement for student pro bono, it hopes to facilitate an interest and passion that will last and grow.
Pro bono for qualified lawyers
Opportunities for pro bono volunteering continue during training and pupillage. Increasingly, aspiring lawyers see opportunities for pro bono as informing their career decisions. For many, pro bono is an essential part of being a lawyer. It can help to build skills and confidence, develop teams and team spirit, and offers the chance to test oneself as a lawyer, perhaps in a new environment or a different area of law.
LawWorks is the operating name of the Solicitors Pro Bono Group. Established in 1997, it is a charity providing support for local independent pro bono advice clinics and supporting the pro bono work of our members – largely law firms and in-house teams – and others. In Scotland pro bono is supported by its sister charity, LawWorks Scotland.
LawWorks connects volunteer lawyers in England and Wales with people in need of legal advice who are not eligible for legal aid and cannot afford to pay, and with community groups and not-for-profit organisations that support them or their communities.
Our programmes include the following:
LawWorks is also developing a ‘policy voice’ for pro bono, drawing on the experience of clinics, our members and the wider profession, to inform and influence change to better enable access to justice for all.
Working together to achieve more
In recent years, the coordination of pro bono in England and Wales has strengthened.
The annual National Pro Bono Week celebrates the breadth and impact of pro bono work (including internationally) undertaken by the legal profession throughout the year. Sponsored by the Law Society, the Bar Council and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, a range of events, including with a student focus, are held across the country.
In 2016 the Law Society launched a Pro Bono Manual (to support solicitors to develop or extend pro bono practice) and a Pro Bono Charter, encouraging the profession to make a public commitment to pro bono.
The National Pro Bono Centre was established in Chancery Lane, London, to house and support national pro bono organisations and others working to maximise access to justice. The centre represents the creation of a single, physical hub for the coordination and development of national pro bono services (www.nationalprobonocentre.org.uk).
Pro bono has an important and significant contribution to make in enabling access to justice. The important debates about legal aid provision and policy reform will continue. Whatever direction your future career may take, you can personally make a difference through pro bono. It truly is part of being a lawyer.
Martin Barnes is the chief executive of LawWorks. For more information about LawWorks, visit www.lawworks.org.uk.