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Why Pro Bono Legal Work Might Be The Best Thing You Do

Why Pro Bono Legal Work Might Be The Best Thing You Do

‘Pro bono publico’

You may have heard of the phrase. You might have come across reports of miscarriages of justice brought to light by the persistence of lawyers giving their time for free. Or perhaps you’ve been told about the lawyers who are assisting the increasing number of litigants in person as they struggle through court procedure, for no fee.

That fantastic work has a clear impact on the people who access those free services. In fact, access to justice has become a bit of a buzz phrase of late, sadly in part due to the fundamental changes to legal aid. If you want to know more about the state of pro bono in the UK today, you can do no better than to read Rebecca Hilsenrath’s commentary here.

Nothing can diminish the indisputable effect of someone in need of legal assistance being able to walk into a room and be given that help, for free. However, let’s accept that and put it to one side for the moment. Let’s turn the spotlight on you and explore what getting involved with pro bono work whilst you’re at law school can do for your skills base, your job prospects, and your personal development.

In 2011 it was reported that the provision of pro bono in law schools had risen by 40%. You might suspect that this was compared to the early 1900s, where the law (especially if you believe Bleak House!) was drawn out, unjust and subject to the whims of dusty old books and those who liked to pour over them. Yet, the report was talking about a 40% increase since 2006. Law schools had fallen in love with pro bono. Three years on, it is rare to find a law school which does not offer some form of opportunity for students to become involved in giving free advice to members of the public. At the start of this year, for example, Glasgow Caledonian University launched a pro bono law clinic to address the ‘unmet legal needs’ of the local community, particularly in relation to housing problems. Many law schools now have their own law clinics. There are many different models. Some, like Northumbria University’s Student Law Office which has been in existence since the 1980s, are run as a live solicitors’ firm providing advice and representation on a wide range of legal areas. In some clinics students are supervised by law school staff who are also practising solicitors/barristers. Other clinics utilise external law firms for supervision. Some means test clients, others don’t. Some are part of the degree programme, others are voluntary. Some are assessed, some are not. There are also stand alone projects, such as Streetlaw where students deliver presentations to community groups and schools.

Whichever pro bono scheme your law school has (and some, like my own, run many pro bono projects which encompass all of the examples included above) there are opportunities that are not to be missed.

Autonomy

It’s all about you. Yes, you. Of course you’ll inevitably have some form of supervision but that supervisor will expect you to have ideas, form a strategy and think about the next steps. As a clinic supervisor one of the most rewarding things for me is where a student has received correspondence from a client and instead of running straight to me and asking me what to do with it, they read it carefully, consider their position, come to a conclusion and prepare a response to that e-mail to show me. Autonomy is about independent thought and reflecting upon your own learning, assisted by the feedback that you will get from your supervisor.

Confidence

‘You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face’ – Eleanor Roosevelt.

‘Learning through doing’ can be an incredibly rewarding experience, but it can be scary at times too! It is easy to draw parallels with medical students and their clinical work. I’m sure there are some shaky hands the first time a student is asked to take blood. However, over time, and with more and more experience they gain confidence and self belief.

Advising a client can be nerve wracking, but those nerves will swiftly be replaced by a sense of achievement as you lead the client out of the office at the end of the session, knowing that you have provided useful information which has made a difference to that person’s personal life or business.

Communication skills

When thinking about communication skills, the focus is often on client interviewing. However, alongside your client, you will also be communicating with the person supervising your work and your team, if you have one. There might also be multiple parties or other legal advisors to deal with.

It isn’t all about face to face contact either. Legal writing often gets bad press. Earlier this year, the Law Gazette received a letter from a solicitor who repeated verbatim a letter she had been sent by another firm. Not only was it overly legalistic and formal, it made no sense whatsoever! Writing a good letter isn’t the same as writing a good academic essay. You will need to consider tone, structure and purpose – not just the legal advice. Your letter might be making an argument for something, or addressing the client’s concerns head on. It might need to refer back to what was agreed. Towards the end of their time in our clinic I ask my students to look back at early drafts of letters, to see how far they have developed. They often laugh when they look back at letters they wrote at the start: “I’d never write that now!” “I can’t believe I couldn’t see how bad that looked!”

Telling people what they might not expect to hear

You’re undoubtedly used to problem questions in workshops or exams. There’s always an answer, isn’t there? Real law in action doesn’t always have that answer. Sometimes you have to say it could be read one of two ways, or even that you don’t know. Imagine that!

Giving legal advice also isn’t about telling people what they want to hear. It’s about providing quality, competent guidance based on all of the facts. This can include giving clients information that they might not necessarily welcome. That might be that the prospects of success in a case are less than the client might have expected. Perhaps the client is mistaken in the belief that they own certain intellectual property rights. It might be that there is a course of action, but that the commercial reality is that it may not be in the client’s best interests to pursue it. Learning to deliver that advice to a client can be much more difficult, and yet more rewarding, that just telling them that everything will be fine, and they have a ‘concrete case’.

Managing your time

Time management goes hand in hand with autonomy and strategising. There is no point in sitting down to write a short letter for one client that can, in reality, wait a few days when there’s a difficult phone call to be made on another matter. You might choose to write that letter because it’s easy, but in the long run the phone call will become more urgent. Eventually, it’ll become the thing you’re constantly putting off. Pro bono work gives you the opportunity to learn what sort of time manager you are when you’re faced with real legal service provision. It allows you to develop skills that will serve you in other aspects of your academic life. Many students have told me that their clinic work has had a real impact on the way that they manage their coursework or dissertation.

Fun!
It’s unpredictable, challenging and exciting stuff.

It’s not just about the black letter of the law either. This week my clinic students discussed who they thought should replace St Ivo as the patron saint of lawyers. We visited our local Business and IP Centre and looked at the resources that entrepreneurs could access, and we discussed interviewing techniques and how body language could affect job prospects. Also, speaking of employability, it’s worth noting that pro bono work can set you apart from others. Whether it’s giving a presentation to a local charity, or representing someone in court, both of those experiences can be used to demonstrate to a potential employer your ability to plan and manage complex tasks, your ability to provide members of the public with clear and effective advice, and your ability to apply your knowledge and understanding of legal principles to a problem that doesn’t have a set “answer”.

So, if you haven’t done so already, seek out pro bono schemes and learn more about what you can do to get involved. Pro bono publico means ‘for the public good’  – why don’t you see if it can be good for you too?

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