As a law student and aspiring lawyer myself, I could not afford to pass on the opportunity to write about a big date for the diary today.
National Pro Bono Week is upon us, an important occasion which rightly highlights the vital pro bono contribution lawyers make – arguably made more vital in an era of austerity and cuts in legal aid across the UK. This week will also raise awareness of pro bono opportunities among the legal profession. National Pro Bono Week will be sponsored by the Law Society, Bar Council and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) who will no doubt stress the importance in continuation and wide-spread recognition of pro bono assistance. This will be demonstrated through speeches and presentations, most notable of which will no doubt be the speech due to be delivered by Baroness Lawrence. She will discuss the positive impact pro bono lawyers had in the tragic case of her murdered son, Stephen.
Moreover, the Society’s Junior Lawyers division is also marking the week by showcasing five pro bono projects which junior lawyers have been involved in, evidence that shows pro bono can be carried out at all levels of the legal profession. Even law students can participate and provide their services, as will be discussed.
Why would lawyers devote their time and energy on cases in the knowledge that they will not derive financial gain? Do lawyers really care about their local community, so much so that they engage in free legal assistance? The latter can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ and elaborated on via the answer to the first question: lawyers provide legal advice and advocacy as a service to others generally, and recognising the need for legal protection for all regardless of monetary needs is simply a key tenet of the legal profession. Pro bono is the shortened version of the full phrase, pro bono publico which translates as ‘for the public good’. Essentially, you help one to help the community.
The President of the Law Society, Jonathan Smithers, neatly summarised the legal profession’s continued adherence to pro bono work:
‘The legal profession is committed to providing free advice to many of the most vulnerable people in our society who would not be able to access legal help in any other way, particularly given the significant reduction in the number of people entitled to legal aid. We know of no other profession doing so much.
‘All this free advice is given on a voluntary basis, reflecting lawyers’ commitment to the communities in which they live and work and to our wider society.’
As a law student, I was made aware of the importance of pro bono work from an early stage in my degree. I view it as a responsibility of lawyers to ensure they provide their services freely to those who most need such aid, and moreover would not have had the access otherwise. It is a duty to the community in my eyes, and having always recognised the need to carry out voluntary service, this is obviously the natural progression of such service into a professional capacity. Whenever I undertake voluntary work, whether it is tutoring local primary school children or helping with neighbourhood clean-ups as I did in America, I view it as my way of thanking the community for all it has provided me. I give back in my own way, and should I be fortunate enough to enter the legal profession as I desire to, pro bono work would certainly be the means of my giving back to the community, and happily so.
But I am busy with my studies, my part-time job and my student organisations, I hear you cry. Why should I, as a law student, engage in pro bono services – if I even could?
Well, you most certainly can offer your services for free, thanks to certain organisations. There is StreetLaw, a non-profit which aims to create programmes for the community to educate the community in the law, human rights and democracy in general via various projects. (My university has a StreetLaw group, which is growing in popularity and scope.) There is of course Citizens Advice Bureau, a UK-wide advice charity disseminating legal advice and information to the public. Both of the aforementioned groups are always glad of new volunteers, and will carefully train and prepare you before you start.
If you reside in England/Wales (sorry, fellow Northern Irish students) you can volunteer for LawWorks. This charity aims to connect volunteers with those seeking legal assistance, but have not qualified for legal aid and thus are unable to pay for such assistance. Its website boasts a section devoted to helping volunteers find their ideal pro bono and volunteering opportunities. Student Pro Bono also has a detailed and informative website for those keen to volunteer their services whilst also explaining what pro bono entails and how vital it is.
You can request help from your Law School on campus to point you in the right direction, or even see about establishing your own pro bono unit on campus with staff and students.
Well, there you have websites and organisations to help you understand pro bono, as well as list opportunities you can get involved in. But the question remains: why should we as law students give up even more of our free time? I could argue along the ‘boost the all-important CV’ route, and this is a valid point. Pro bono work illustrates you can put your degree into practical application, and have developed key legal skills such as research, and advocacy. You will become used to legal writing and drafting, which you are not often exposed to in your degree. You will certainly stand out in applications, and can utilise your pro bono experiences at interviews via the STAR method.
But that is not enough. So I will argue this instead: simply put, carrying out pro bono work demonstrates your passion and commitment to legal practice and in service to others. If you are sincere about working in the legal profession, you will understand the importance of advocacy, of representing a client who relies on you to provide them with most preferred outcome. To work a pro bono case means you care about the law, and you care about the law helping those who rely upon it. You are the transmitter of sorts in this case, representing a vulnerable and often desperate client because you want to help them, not because you want to earn money. Working with other similarly minded individuals, you strive to provide that best possible outcome because this vulnerable client depends on you to do so.
Pro bono practice is a proud and much-needed tradition in the legal profession. Given the depth and scale of government cuts across the UK, including the controversial cuts to legal aid, pro bono remains an important practice. As David Edwards, the President of CILEx stated that the pro bono work must never be overlooked as ‘it’s part of being a lawyer’. Which it is indeed: it is the art of helping others for free. It is realising the need for legal assistance and the importance of providing access to justice, regardless of limited funds.
Yet we should note the warning from Mr Edwards:
‘Whilst pro bono can help fill gaps, it cannot ever be seen to be a replacement for legal aid.’
Pro bono is an important practice. But we cannot rely on it to solve the crisis created by the cuts to legal aid. Yet it can still help some of those who are vulnerable and require legal assistance, and who desperately need a voice to speak on their behalf.
If you are a law student and interested in reading more about and seeking out pro bono opportunities, why not read the following articles:
Pro bono and law students: what’s in it for me? Nick Johnson
Volunteering: how to get into pro bono ‘The Oracle’ via Law Careers.Net
The benefits of pro bono Grace Kelly
Student pro bono: maximising the impact of volunteering David Dowling and Oliver Hyams
What is pro bono? Sameena Manzar