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NPBW2015: Volunteering in a University Law Clinic

NPBW2015: Volunteering in a University Law Clinic

The third article in our series on pro bono is by Zachary Seow who discusses his experience in the law clinic at the University of Kent and also the benefits of taking part in a similar project. Don’t forget to take a look at our other articles that celebrate pro bono work for National Pro Bono Week 2015.

As part of the National Pro Bono week, I thought it would be good to provide some insight into how it is like to volunteer in a law clinic by recounting my experience in the Kent Law Clinic so far. But before that, it would be good to answer a question that might be on everyone else’s mind.

Why do pro bono?

This question may be foreign to many. To the many of us who are privileged, this question might not have much significance. But for the many who I have had contact with during my time in the Kent Law Clinic, this question has huge resonance. Pro bono work can really provide access to legal advice to the people on the ground who cannot afford. And from the demand I have seen, there are a lot of people out there who need help.

Beyond providing access, pro bono work in the form of participating in the law clinic can in general contribute greatly to professional development. You learn not only valuable professional skills but also life skills. It also forces you to confront ethical questions and think critically about the law. Most importantly, you obtain a deeper understanding of the law beyond what you see in books. Not only does it help to enrich your studies but for those who learn best in practice (like myself) this experience can be invaluable.

What you will learn volunteering in a law clinic

I learned a lot in my time in the Law Clinic. But for brevity sake I shall provide 5 important learning points that I see as most worthy to highlight.

  1. You will learn how to take on responsibility. In my first day in the Kent Law Clinic, I was thrown into a sea of unfamiliarity. There were staff and solicitors whom I could turn to for guidance but most of the times, they themselves were overwhelmed by the work that they have. Very often, there was a lot of self-learning and initiative that had to be taken. For example, I learned how to take charge of the daily running of the case. This included contacting clients and coordinating with the solicitors. Taking responsibility also meant having the discipline to actually do some work. Furthermore, I saw first-hand how my action or inaction can have an impact on someone else’s life, and this motivated me.  I had to also monitor the progress of the case on my own. This meant making certain decisions and steering the direction of the case.
  2. You start seeing the importance of all the skills that graduate recruiters emphasise. For example, managing your time and planning well in advance. Managing a case while studying is tough work, and there can be situations where you have to prioritise your case because of certain demands even though you might have essay deadlines coming up soon. This is where good planning and time management comes into place. Other skills include organisational skills required in managing a client file and making sure that every piece of correspondence or document is detailed and/or attention to detail when researching cases and legislation. The last thing you want to do is to provide a legally inaccurate advice to the client.
  3. You learn to ask what the client wants. This is I think one of the most important takeaway from volunteering in the law clinic. Before this, I used to assume that I knew what a client wanted. But it is simply not possible. The best way to know is to ask the client. Volunteering in the Kent Law Clinic has taught me this well and I am very thankful for that.
  4. You start understanding and putting into practice the doctrines you studied in your earlier undergraduate years. For example, in researching the law to provide advice to the client I started to see how previous doctrines I learned such as the rules of statutory interpretation come alive. I also had to navigate my way through the doctrine of implied repeal to see which legislation remains effective and which does not.
  5. Lastly and most importantly, you learn life skills. You learn how to communicate with people. You learn how to behave in a professional manner. You learn how to put yourself in the client’s shoes and to see from their perspective. All these are skills that are important in starting a legal career and it gives you an advantage to learn all these early.

I hope I have outlined the advantages of pro bono work, in this case, specific to volunteering in a university law clinic. I hope this outline can convince everyone to volunteer for some form of pro bono work especially in one’s undergraduate years, Start volunteering at your university’s law clinic. If your university does not have a law clinic, volunteer at the nearest Citizens Advice Bureau. You won’t regret it.

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