In today’s tough economic climate, it is perhaps harder than ever to secure that elusive training contract or pupillage. A good degree is only one part of the story. For aspiring lawyers, it is vital to have experience in the legal sphere. The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) provides a valuable experience for budding lawyers and can not only make you look more attractive to prospective employers, but can help you develop skills which are vital to a legal career.
CAB offers sundry volunteering opportunities, from administrative tasks to fundraising work to advising on the law. For those wishing to pursue a legal career, volunteering as an adviser can be hugely beneficial. However, the benefits stretch beyond just personal benefits, as volunteering with the CAB will benefit your local bureau and the wider community.
Marian Hurle, the director of the Stevenage CAB, points out that it is extremely difficult to get a job without work experience. Competition for training contracts and pupillages is fierce and it is no longer enough to simply have a good LLB or GDL. Not only does volunteering with the CAB look good on your CV and make you stand out from the host of other applicants, but it also provides opportunities to see, and be involved in, the law in practice. Of course, work shadowing is great and will illustrate to a prospective employer that you are committed to your chosen career, but the hands-on experience provided by working with the CAB will allow you to gauge which areas of law you may be most attracted to. In addition, it may illustrate to you whether or not a legal career really is right for you.
Ms Hurle agrees, noting that the experience can be a ‘reality check’ for some. Although most law students who have committed to a legal career will usually be fairly set on this decision already, it can be helpful in confirming whether legal advice work suits you personally. University can provide a solid theoretical understanding of the law, but the law in practice can be something quite different.Advisers at CAB will be confronted with a myriad of queries and problems from members of their community. This exposure to a broad range of social problems can prove invaluable in helping a law student decide which area of law is most suited to them. Perhaps, for example, employment law did not appeal to you during your degree which meant that you did not choose it as one of your optional modules. However, after helping clients with a range of employment issues, from redundancy to unfair dismissal, you may find that you actually have a keen interest and flair for this area of law
The skills and attributes which can be developed and honed through volunteering as an adviser can likewise prove invaluable. For aspiring solicitors, interviewing clients and diagnosing problems will be an integral part of your working day in the future. Thus, the experience of interviewing clients at the CAB, learning how to control and steer the interview and extracting the relevant information will be extremely helpful in demonstrating to potential employers that you are suitable for the job. For those looking to pursue a career at the Bar, the opportunity to contact other organisations, such as creditors or local authorities to negotiate on your client’s behalf, will allow you to practise your skills of negotiation and persuasion and this will stand you in good stead for your chosen career.
The list of skills which you will learn through volunteering with the CAB is long, but some of the most important for aspiring lawyers are: communication, confidence, professionalism and patience. The latter should not be underestimated. Individuals who find themselves needing legal advice and support will often be stressed, anxious and upset. Patience and tact is needed when dealing with such individuals and the CAB will provide the opportunity for you to develop these skills.
The benefits work both ways and it is important that there is a mutual exchange between yourself and the bureau. Bureaux rely on their volunteers – without them they could not function. Indeed, volunteers make up around 75 per cent of the CAB’s total workforce. Law students in particular can bring a broad range of benefits to their local bureaux due to their legal knowledge and legal interest.
If you are committed to a legal career, then the chances are you are an ambitious individual with a genuine interest in the law. This drive and interest can make you a valuable asset to your local bureau. The background legal knowledge acquired through your education so far, coupled with your interest to pursue a legal career, will stand you in good stead as an adviser. Of course, your bureau is not going to expect you to know all the answers to queries which come your way, but the theoretical knowledge of the law can prove useful.
Ms Hurle points out that young people often bring creativity and new ideas to the bureau. Furthermore, she notes that they are ‘often quick to learn’. Indeed, the combination of background legal knowledge acquired through university and the ability and eagerness to learn means that law students can make a substantial contribution to their local bureau. The skills learnt through legal education are also highly relevant: you will be able to apply the problem-solving skills which you developed through your degree to real life scenarios.
During 2010/11, Citizens Advice Bureau helped more than 2 million people with a variety of problems from debt to housing – to name but a few. Bureaux make a huge impact on their local communities, not just through assisting individuals with their problems, but taking pressure off of other local services, by preventing homelessness and by ensuring that council tax, rent and utilities can be paid. Without the CAB, clients who are struggling to pay their rent, council tax or other debts may be unable to access help or support. This can lead to increases in evictions and homelessness, as well as court action, which is costly both to the wider community and the individual(s) involved.
For individuals, the CAB can be an absolute lifeline. Whether they are a regular client or someone who is using the service for the first time, the information and advice provided can give clients the knowledge and power to help themselves, be it through accessing a benefit that they did not realise they were entitled to, by understanding the options available to leave a violent partner or by understanding their rights at work. All volunteers at the CAB provide a vital service to their community and, although the work can certainly be challenging, the feeling of helping a client through a stressful episode of their lives can be extremely rewarding.
The Citizens Advice Bureau invests a lot of time and money into providing free training for their volunteer advisers. The training programme introduces volunteers to the bureau, the services provided and to the CAB’s ethos and values. Aside from substantive training on areas of law, the training focuses on the practical side of advising and looks at developing the skills mentioned earlier – particularly interviewing skills. After successfully completing the training programme, volunteers will become qualified advisers, although support is still given to all advisers throughout their time with their bureau.
Indeed, the supportive atmosphere provided by the bureaux makes a huge difference to everyone who works for the service. Advisers are not expected to know all of the answers and can rely on the knowledge and expertise of the session supervisor to assist them in helping a client.
Most bureaux operate a ‘gateway’ or ‘triage’ system, which means that clients can attend a drop-in session, or contact the CAB’s Advice Line helpline, and speak to an adviser that day. The purpose of the initial interview will be to diagnose the problem and decide on the best course of action. The gateway adviser may be able to provide information through factsheets which are available on the CAB’s website, AdviceGuide.org.uk, or they may signpost the client to another agency if they feel that a different organisation could provide the necessary expert advice. Often, the gateway adviser will decide that a full appointment or telephone call is needed with a CAB adviser and this can be arranged during the initial gateway assessment.
During the full interview or call-back, advisers will further explore the problem to identify and extract all the necessary information. On the basis of this, advice and information can be given. The client’s problem will often mean that you contact another organisation on their behalf. As mentioned previously, this may be a creditor to whom the client owes money, or a local authority. The range of problems you will see will vary from day to day.
One day you may see a client in the process of appealing a benefits decision and the next you may be advising a client on how to deal with bailiffs or court action. Another day may see you liaising with a fuel provider to query an energy bill and the next may see you discussing the court orders available for an unmarried father who wants to be more involved in his child’s life.
Whatever the query, and whoever the client, you can feel assured that you will be providing a valuable service and helping not only yourself, but also the individual and the wider community. Volunteering with the CAB is certainly hard work, but a legal career is nothing if not challenging. The preparation, experience and skills which volunteering with the CAB can give to aspiring lawyers is truly invaluable. Likewise, the service provided by the CAB is invaluable to its clients and the local community.
This article was originally published in March 2013.