The Law Behind: Pro bono for students: an educational staple?

Most law schools and universities omit pro bono from their programmes. Gemma Charles and Jodi Bartle report on what their students are missing out on


Top law schools in the UK are failing to offer their students the chance to undertake pro bono work. Research by Lawyer 2B has revealed that institutions such as Oxford University and Cardiff Law School are failing to make provisions for students wishing to do something to help out the general public and increase their practical experience of the law.

The majority of 20 universities and law schools surveyed by Lawyer 2B do not run pro bono activities for their students. Commentators believe that a wider survey would show that in total around a quarter of all institutions do so.

The findings suggest that it is predominantly the older universities that are less inclined to run pro bono schemes than the new ones, which as former polytechnics have more of a tradition in offering practical, vocational courses.

In many cases the students have been forced to establish programmes themselves. In the last issue of Lawyer 2B, student pro bono enthusiasts revealed the problems they had encountered in trying to do their bit. The Solicitors Pro Bono Group (SPBG) Student Challenge winner in 2002, Kate Borrowdale, created the Oxford Institute of Legal Practices pro bono programme herself after finding that the school did nothing. Her programmes and the links she established with local organisations are still in place, kept alive by a fresh intake of proactive students.

The 2003 winner, Tatiana Schweimler, tells a similar story. Initially, Schweimler, in between working towards her law degree, had to struggle to set up the work and was actually rejected by the universitys own advice centre. It was really quite difficult to find an organisation to work with, she said. I expected far fewer hurdles.

Schweimler was determined and persevered, but how many other well-meaning students have been put off once they found out that there was nothing on offer through their law school?

There are, though, valid reasons why institutions do not get involved in pro bono.

Bournemouth University programme leader for LLB business law degree Louise Dubary says: Weve never got into it because of the liability. This was also one of the difficulties that Schweimler came up against, as some organisations can find no use for students as there are limits on what they can do legally.

It also makes a difference if the work is integrated into the course. Cardiff Law School manager Julie Price says: We organised pro bono in the past, but weve found it hasnt been feasible because of getting students to do the work.

Professor Stephen Shute of Birmingham University comments: I would question to what extent undergraduates have the time, inclination and experience to offer meaningful advice. Once theyre qualified, they seem to begin the traditional pro bono approach.

Perhaps Shute should ask his students what they think.

BPP Law School recently organised a talk on pro bono and, according to Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) tutor Jonathan Clore, hundreds of students came to hear the speaker. There are many similar stories suggesting that this enthusiasm is mirrored in law schools up and down the country.

Nottingham Law School senior lecturer Nick Johnson thinks it is a worthwhile extra for a law school to offer. His school runs an extracurricular informal programme to help students cement their learning.

Its good because students develop business development skills and they learn to work with and develop client skills, he comments. In the big firms, theres a limited amount of time they can engage with clients; in fact, theres no direct client contact for a long time.

College of Law director of pro bono and clinical legal education Richard Grimes agrees. We had some trainees in from a big law firm. Theyd never met a client before and yet they were in the second year of their training contract, he explains. We got them working with tenants at a tribunal around the corner. You could see from the look on their faces that all of a sudden law meant something.

He says the college runs what is one of the UKs largest clinical programmes for a variety of reasons. Its a very powerful education for the students, he emphasises. We want to improve the quality of lawyers becoming practitioners, so in some ways its done for the profession.

We also try to get our law students to be very focused on practice, to think about knowledge and skills and values, to think about what lawyers should do for other people not just about earning money.

Grimes says the main reason that universities in particular shun pro bono is because of the cost. The College of Law runs one of the most comprehensive programmes in the UK, but it also charges some of the highest fees. It has an in-house legal advice centre for members of the public run by LPC students with support from supervisors, while BVC students get to represent clients before the Residential Property Tribunal Service. The students gain experience of advocacy at the sharp-end and can make a real difference.

Last year, for example, a pair of student barristers up against a team of City solicitors and a barrister triumphed at the tribunal, saving their clients thousands of pounds in service charges and legal costs (Lawyer 2B, October 2003). GDL students can do Street Law (a literacy scheme) and the college also offers work-based placements at organisations such as Crisis, Shelter and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. In one way or another, all pro bono work can count towards part of a students course.

Grimes admits that funding this sort of activity on this scale is easier for a legal education provider than it is for a university. He is calling for a reassessment of the Higher Education Funding Councils banding criteria, which determines how much a university can claim for a student on a certain course. The top banding is A, which attracts 12,000 per student and includes subjects such as medicine, and the lowest is D for theoretical, lecture-based subjects such as law and English, attracting 1,500 per student.

Grimes argues that if universities adopted clinical studies into law degrees, the extra expense incurred could be used as a justification for moving up a band. If we were able to increase the banding of law students from D to C, the funding would go up by over 1,000 a student, he says.

The Law Societys assessment of the training framework could also have an impact on the fortunes of pro bono work at the academic stage. If the training contract stage of qualification is abandoned (an idea that has been floated in the education framework paper), then those calling for work-based learning before qualification as a solicitor would have a better case.

In the US and Australia, where qualification frameworks do not include training contracts, clinical work is more established. In fact, in the US it is a requirement of the American Bar Association that a law degree has a clinical component. Pro bono work through clinics has been around since the 1930s in some law schools and really took off in the early 1960s, when they were linked to the civil rights movement.

But there are some universities over here that do manage it, such as Kent, which has run a clinical programme since the 1970s, and Manchester, which in recent years has started up an in-house clinic.

Northumbria University offers a unique four-year combined LLM and LPC course, incorporating pro bono into a year of an undergraduates studies.

The School of Laws associate dean of clinical legal education Philip Plowden explains: They have live client work, they run cases, deal with clients and have the full practical experience. We have students in courts and tribunals covering a range of practice. The students deal with five or six cases throughout the year and we assess them on it.

These experiences prove that if the will is there, pro bono can be incorporated into the legal education system. However, it still seems that in many law schools this is not the case.