There’s a long history of lawyers doing pro bono work, going back to medieval times when, 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 can’t access legal aid and can’t 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 can’t fill the vacuum and need caused by policy change and funding cuts – but, as it has throughout history, it continues to make an important and profound contribution to enabling access to justice.
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, a charity, or in local or central government. While your legal expertise or knowledge may not always align with the legal need, your training, skills and aptitudes are readily transferable to the real-life situations and problems of pro bono clients. You can make a profound pro bono contribution as a student, trainee or pupil – and indeed, we all know that an early experience of pro bono can instil a passion and commitment that lasts a career and beyond.
Pro bono for students
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 actual 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:
LawWorks encourages and supports the development of law school clinics and also organises the annual Student Pro Bono Awards, run in partnership with the Attorney General, with a ceremony held at the House of Commons. By recognising and celebrating student pro bono, the awards help to encourage an interest and passion that will last and grow.
Pro bono for qualified lawyers
Opportunities for pro bono volunteering continue during training, pupillage and qualifying work experience. 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’s 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 legal teams – and others. LawWorks’ programmes include the following:
Each year in December, LawWorks holds its Annual Pro Bono Awards, to celebrate the pro bono work of its member firms and highlight the outstanding impact that their commitment to access to justice has on our communities.
Working together to achieve more
In recent years, the support and coordination of pro bono in England and Wales has strengthened.
Supported by LawWorks, the Law Society of England and Wales has produced 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.
In 2019, a group of in-house lawyers, supported by LawWorks and some in-firm pro bono coordinators, launched the UK In-house Pro Bono Group to foster a commitment to pro bono among the in-house community. This is one of many initiatives designed to enhance collaboration in the sector. In 2022, we’ve seen a number of regional pro bono roundtables take place, and from them a commitment to geographically focused pro bono groups to help foster pro bono in different regions within England and Wales.
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.
Rebecca Wilkinson is the chief executive of LawWorks. For more information about LawWorks, visit www.lawworks.org.uk or follow on Twitter @Law_Works.