Exposing gaps in access to justice

Making your way in a large international law firm can be a daunting task. Given that around 6,000 solicitors are admitted to the roll each year, you have to make yourself stand out from the crowd. Pro bono is a great way of doing just that.

I was tasked with helping to coordinate a flagship pro bono project at Hogan Lovells, where I am a third-seat trainee. We decided to focus on the area of access to justice, and carried out a survey of unmet legal need in London through MP surgeries, which we eventually turned into a report.

I first got involved last summer, when the director of pro bono at Hogan Lovells asked for volunteers to coordinate a project in cooperation with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Pro Bono and the organisation LawWorks. I responded, along with another trainee, and took the reins.

What did we do?

The first hurdle was getting MPs on board. There are over 70 MPs in London and we contacted all of them about our project. Some MPs were very responsive, while others were completely unresponsive or were suspicious. We spent hours on the phone to caseworkers trying to persuade them to take part.

We then assembled our own internal team of volunteers to attend the surgeries, made logistical arrangements and created a project calendar.

Preparation for the surgeries

I designed a simple table which our volunteers could use to record the data they observed at the MP surgeries. The volunteers were to record whether a problem was legal or non-legal, which legal category it fitted in (e.g. housing) and any relevant details.

We arranged for our volunteers to be trained by Pro Bono Community in identifying legal issues and sub-categorising them. Our volunteers were also educated in the legislative changes which have affected access to justice (e.g. Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012).

Attending the surgeries

Around 30 of our volunteers attended 40 MP surgeries across all three main political parties. Their role was to sit and observe while the MP and their caseworkers talked to constituents about their problem(s), recording information in the table we provided.

Processing the data

I collected all 40 data sheets and inputted the information into a spreadsheet. I then analysed the data and found some very interesting results.

In total, we observed 325 constituents with 352 problems. We found that around 90 per cent of those problems were legal in nature, with the three biggest areas for concern being housing (37 per cent), immigration (23 per cent) and welfare benefits (13 per cent).

Writing and launching the report

All of this information then had to be translated into a report, which we called “Mind the gap: an assessment of unmet legal need in London”. This involved assembling a team of writers and each taking on a section (I wrote the quantitative data section). Finally, after several rounds of proof-reading, the report was finished (it can be read here). We launched the report at a meeting of the APPG in the Atlee Suite of the Houses of Parliament.

Lessons learned

The importance of organisation

This project involved, in total, over 100 people, varying from trainees, associates, counsel, partners, PAs and the design and communications teams at Hogan Lovells, to the pro bono organisations LawWorks and Pro Bono Community, to the APPG and MPs and their caseworkers. Coordinating that number of people is challenging and I found that staying on top of the administrative and organisational aspects of the project on a daily basis was vital to its success. This aspect of the project also demonstrates how large law firms can use their vast resources to tackle big issues.

Persistence is key

By taking a carefully persistent approach with reluctant MPs, we managed to persuade many of them to take part. Furthermore, I learned that the realisation of the report did not end when it was published – while we increased awareness of the problems in access to justice in London, we were continually asked “but what are you doing to do with the report?” I have since persisted in pursuing its message and am making arrangements with one area of London to seek to implement some of the recommendations outlined in our report.

Benjamin Thomas is a trainee at Hogan Lovells. He won the firm’s “Outstanding Global Citizen” award in 2017.

My career story: “I qualified and became my firm’s pro bono manager”