The Law society estimates that 1.8 million hours of free legal advice were provided by solicitors alone in 2015-16. That’s 75,000 full days of volunteered time. Despite this impressive statistic, the importance of this work is only increasing in our society. Spending cuts have made fewer people eligible for legal aid and many cannot now afford adequate legal advice.
Read on to find out exactly what pro bono is, what you can do, and how it could benefit your career. We’ve provided some ways to get involved whether you are a qualified lawyer or still a law student.
What is pro bono?
The term pro bono comes from the Latin phrase pro bono publico, which translates as ‘for the public good’. In the legal sector, it largely refers to the volunteer work that lawyers and law students do to help those struggling to access the legal support they need. However, pro bono work doesn’t have to consist of legal advice. Projects that help raise awareness of pro bono schemes, or that educate groups about law, can be considered pro bono work.
The Pro Bono Protocol for Legal Work sets out what pro bono is and how it should be carried out. It is important to note that although law students, trainees and pupil barristers are encouraged to carry out pro bono work, they must be supervised whilst doing so. There are several organisations set up in England and Wales to help connect lawyers and law students with the people who need their assistance on a pro bono basis. For example, LawWorks is the Solicitors Pro Bono Group. It is a charity dedicated to helping those not eligible for legal aid and who cannot afford to pay. The charity wants to create a strong emphasis on pro bono work among students to make sure that the next generation of lawyers is committed to proving this support. Similar organisations are available for barristers, chartered legal executive, and students.
Why should students do pro bono work?
Taking on pro bono work as a student can have a huge impact on your career prospects. Here are ten great reasons to do pro bono work as a law student, pupil barrister, or solicitor:
Helps you choose your specialism: Getting some real-life experience of dealing with clients and their cases could help you decide what move to make next in your career. You might discover a passion for family law or for criminal law whilst working on these cases.
Gives your CV a boost: Being able to use examples from real cases that you’ve worked on can really help you stand out to potential employers, or on your training contract/pupillage application. Pro bono experience is often viewed as more important than paralegal experience or additional qualifications. Not only do you show employers that you have the skills to do your job, you demonstrate your commitment to your career and to upholding justice.
Time management skills: Taking on additional work will help you develop your time management and organisational skills. As an already busy law student, fitting in this extra work is a challenge that will put you in good stead for your future career.
Inter-personal skills: You are likely to interview a variety of people while doing pro bono work. This will help you learn how best to communicate with different groups of people.
Confidence: This practical experience can greatly improve your confidence when interviewing clients and in your own abilities. This will prove invaluable in your first few months as a fully qualified lawyer.
Legal drafting skills: Although you will practice this as a law student and will have a grasp of the necessary components, there is no substitute for practical experience. Good drafting skills can be a real asset in improving your efficiency and productivity.
Advocacy skills: If you manage to get some pro bono work that will help hone your advocacy skills, this could give you a real advantage over your peers when it comes to securing a training contract or employment. This is particularly important for future barristers.
Research skills: In doing pro bono work that involves giving legal advice, you will invariably have to carry out practical legal research for your cases. This will give you a real taste of the work you will carry out as a junior lawyer.
You could really help someone: Let’s not forget that the ultimate goal of pro bono work is to provide those without access to legal advice the support they need. This could have a huge impact on someone’s life.
Job satisfaction: This is a chance for you to take a glimpse at what your future career could look like. The satisfaction of providing your clients with solutions to their problems could well increase your drive to be a successful lawyer, reminding you what it’s all about in the first place.
How to get involved with pro bono work
There are plenty of opportunities out there for students to get involved in pro bono work. According to LawWorks, at least 70% of law schools in the UK run a clinic which gives students the opportunity to provide free advice to members of their local community. This proves just how important universities consider this sort of experience to be for their students. Here are some of the ways you can get involved.
University clinic: Take advantage of any opportunity that your university offers in terms of pro bono work. This can be a very easy way of adding to your experience without looking too far.
Volunteering with the Citizens Advice Bureau: This service provides members of the public with free, independent, and confidential advice. There are opportunities for both students and fully-qualified lawyers to volunteer here. Check for opportunities in your local area on the Citizens Advice website.
Volunteer with a local law centre: You will find opportunities similar to those with the Citizens Advice Bureau at your local law centre.
Offer your time to a miscarriage of justice project: There are initiatives such as the Innocence Project and The Miscarriage of Justice Project which seek to overturn wrongful convictions. These kinds of projects are gaining popularity and will help develop skills such as research in particular.
Join a ‘legal-literacy’ project: The most commonly used example of one of these projects is Streetlaw. This was started at Georgetown University, Washington DC. Law students taught local school children about the legal system and even encouraged them to think about it as a potential career. Similar projects in your local community could raise awareness of legal issues.
Free Representation Unit (FRU): This organisation offers members of the public free representation and gives law students and junior lawyers the chance to gain advocacy experience.
Internship with a charity: Some charities may offer you an internship where you will have the opportunity to gain some experience of giving legal advice.
For qualified lawyers:
Many of the opportunities listed above are still relevant for fully-qualified lawyers. Your help would also be welcomed by the CAB, your local law centre, or by the FRU. Many law firms have a pro bono programme that you could get involved with. If yours doesn’t, the Law Society has several resources available to help you set one up:
If you are a solicitor, you can become a member of LawWorks to access volunteering opportunities. Barristers can volunteer with the Bar Pro Bono Unit. CILEx offers opportunities for Chartered Legal Executives through the CILEx Pro Bono Trust website. You can find more opportunities on the National Pro Bono Centre’s volunteer portal.