Pro bono work is by far the best way to hone your lawyering skills and make a valuable contribution to society. It will look great on your CV too. By Toby Farmiloe and Paras Junejo
With plummeting partner profits, redundancies and an increasingly harsh jobs market, for graduates desperate to break into the legal profession it is very easy to only think about yourself.
But even in such difficult times a concern for the local community is still an important quality every lawyer should possess. And since work experience at firms and chambers is so difficult to come by in the current economic downturn, participating in pro bono projects is perhaps one of the best ways for students to hone the skills they will need in practice.
The origins of pro bono lie in the Latin derivation of its name, ‘pro bono publico’, which means ‘for the public good’.
Martin Curtis, project manager for students and law schools at LawWorks, an independent charity that offers support for student pro bono activities, provides a very helpful explanation of pro bono in terms of student participation. “Pro bono activities enable students to get involved in imparting legal advice and information under appropriate supervision from qualified lawyers,” he explains.
While qualified practitioners are required to oversee the advice being given, student pro bono work can include any form of volunteering that assists in the delivery of free legal advice and information to the public.
Opportunities for student pro bono work generally fall into two categories: those available through law schools and those that students organise themselves.
It is advisable for students to get involved as early as possible. Historically, higher education institutions omitted pro bono activities from their degree programmes over fears about liability and because academics underestimated students’ willingness to get involved.
Today the picture could not be any more different. Universities now provide a huge range of pro bono opportunities for undergraduates. Notable examples include Queen Mary University of London’s Student Pro Bono Group, the University of Birmingham’s Law School Pro Bono Group and the University of Kent’s Law Clinic.
At Birmingham University, where participation has rocketed from less than 10 students in its first year of operation to more than 100 signed up for this academic year, chairman Toby McCrindle confirms the importance of pro bono work for undergraduates. “If it’s possible to get involved in pro bono at university, I think it’s crucial”, he says. “First because it gives students practical experience of the law they can’t get from their courses alone, and second because it allows students to help people they perhaps otherwise wouldn’t meet.”
Opportunities available to postgraduate law students, meanwhile, include Street Law projects, which involve students researching and then presenting legal advice to people in their local community; external placements to various charities and outside organisations, such as the Citizens Advice Bureaux; law school legal advice clinics, through which students can provide support to members of the public from the law school itself; and Innocence Projects, in which students work with criminal lawyers and prisoners who maintain their innocence.
BPP Law School leads the way among postgraduate legal education providers in incorporating practical experience into students’ academic courses. “Our pro bono centre aims to give students as many opportunities as possible to use their legal skills to help the community,” says Kara Irwin, director of the Pro Bono Centre at BPP.
As well as managing projects from the centre itself, BPP also organises schemes with outside organisations, such as an ongoing programme with the Personal Support Unit (PSU) for Bar Vocational Course (BVC) student volunteers, which provides support to litigants-in-person.
Outside law school, students can take advantage of a range of volunteering and placement opportunities, many of which are advertised on the LawWorks website, which collates information on past and ongoing projects.
The benefits of participating in pro bono work will hardly need explaining to most aspiring lawyers. The most obvious is the positive impact it can have on the lives of people in the local community.
When inviting nominations for the Junior Lawyers Division’s (JLD) eleventh annual Pro Bono Awards, awards chairman Kevin Poulter reiterated the importance of student pro bono work in the current economic climate. ”Perhaps now more than ever, with so many people affected by the downturn, the pro bono services provided by junior lawyers and the whole profession are even more essential to ensure true access to justice,” he stressed.
Benefits to you
Many students will have the enhancement of their CVs as a prime motivator. Coordinators of pro bono activities acknowledge this incentive, but Curtis adds a note of caution. “Pro bono work is, of course, beneficial for a student’s CV. I have no problem with this so long as they do a good job, remain committed to their clients and work well with their fellow students,” he says.
Pro bono work also often enhances students’ understanding of their professional courses. Applying lessons learnt in the classroom can give a real-world context to academic theories and can aid understanding.
“Lawyering is about practical skills,” says Irwin at BPP. “Without the practical experience pro bono work provides, everything students learn in class is of limited use.”
Students can develop a number of skills, ranging from presentation and research to client contact and emotional empathy, which are vital in legal practice. “Taking part in pro bono work all adds up to a student who can walk into an interview and tell an engaging and convincing story of their experiences, which demonstrates to an employer that they’re ready for the job,” insists Curtis.
We have contact
Since students’ advice must be approved by a qualified practitioner, participating in pro bono activities involves regular close contact with members of the profession. The potential for gaining an extensive understanding of practice and a number of contacts is therefore huge. Students have even been known to secure jobs with the presiding firm or chambers.
Although the benefits of involvement undeniably outweigh the drawbacks, students should heed a word of warning. Balancing pro bono and academic commitments can be demanding and students are expected to fulfil their pro bono responsibilities to high professional standards regardless of other priorities. Students must remember that clients and their pro bono provider depend on them for their work. Nevertheless, law schools work hard to support students with their pro bono activities.
“We work very closely with students and encourage them to prioritise their commitments from a very early stage,” says Irwin. “We say to students, ‘As soon as you realise there’s a conflict, there’s always something that can be done’.”
Much, therefore, can be gained from participating in pro bono work. At a time when vacation schemes and mini-pupillages are so difficult to obtain, and with these established forms of work experience in many cases providing few opportunities for extensive, hands-on legal work, it remains the closest experience to real legal practice available.
Two students, two schemes, two sets of awards. What could be more rewarding than pro bono work?
Camilla Graham Wood, LPC 2007-08, The College of Law
Having successfully bagged Best Contribution by an Individual Student at the Attorney General Student Pro Bono Awards 2009, Wood tells Lawyer 2B about her work in legal aid and the importance of pro bono work.
Studying her LPC at the College of Law (CoL), Wood had a variety of different pro bono activities to choose from at the college’s scheme, all based on providing advice to those disadvantaged members of society who cannot face their legal problems alone.
“The College of Law,” she says, “always seeks to build upon its pro bono work and has a dedicated team of staff that’s passionately committed to promoting this area of law among students.”
This is evident in the work Wood has undertaken: volunteering at the Dellow Centre, giving advice to homeless people with a range of legal problems and working with the Mary Ward Legal Advice Centre providing legal advice on employment issues.
She expanded her work into the human rights sector, working with the Law Society’s international action team and organising a visit for 43 lawyers to Columbia on a human rights fact-finding mission.
September to November 2008 saw her win a scholarship to work on appeals lodged by death row inmates at the Caribbean Centre for Human Rights in Trinidad.
And if you think that is impressive, earlier this year she undertook a six-week internship with Eric Metcalfe, director of human rights policy at Justice, successfully securing herself the coveted Best Contribution by an Individual Student gong at last year’s Attorney General Pro Bono Awards.
Wood explains her commendable involvement in pro bono work as a desire to increase her experience and knowledge in the legal aid sector.
“The more pro bono work I did, the more I knew that I didn’t want to take the standard route into law and work with a corporate firm,” she explains. “It showed me that it’s possible to have a really worthwhile career in the areas of law I’m passionate about.”
In her opinion pro bono is a very important part of the legal sector, as it teaches you how to use the legal skills you are taught at law school and how important these skills are in facing everyday problems.
“It doesn’t matter what area of law you want to practise in, pro bono work is hugely valuable,” she insists.
Wood has secured a training contract with a well-known legal aid firm. She will be spending her first year in immigration law and her second in civil law, putting to full use the experience and skills she learnt and implemented while doing pro bono.
So does she have any final words of advice for aspiring lawyers?
“Take part in as much pro bono as you can,” she says, “and your commitment and hard work can result in great benefits to both the people you’re working with and yourself.”
Alex Simmonds, BVC 2007-08, Nottingham Law School
Another former student who has been recognised for outstanding work in pro bono is Alex Simmonds, the creator of a project designed to raise awareness among prisoners of their legal obligations under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, for which he was awarded a prestigious Higher Education Volunteering Award.
Simmonds studied his Bar Vocational Course (BVC) at Nottingham Law School and
was doing pro bono work at HM Doncaster Prison.
“I had no plans to expand the project until I spoke to Nicholas Johnson, director of pro bono at Nottingham Law School,” he explains. It was originally developed as part of Nottingham Law School’s pro bono project, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The project is an interactive teaching session in the form of a presentation, focusing particularly on the implications of breaching certain obligations of the Rehabilitation Act. The popular name of the project, ‘Bars in Their Eyes’, refers to the quiz part of the project, which uses as examples celebrities who have been convicted of criminal offences.
This is followed by a talk on the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which emphasises what the law prescribed in the act is and what it means.
Following that is the application of the law to real-life situations to increase an understanding of the law that affects these prisoners.
Simmonds had to present the project before a select group of prisoners, none of whom knew what the legislation was.
This, he realised, was a huge problem, and increasing prisoners’ knowledge on this is a big factor in attempting to reduce the number of reoffenders.
“Prisoners face a wide range of legal problems,” says Simmonds, “but very few of these problems affect all of them simultaneously.”
Breaching the Rehabilitation Act, however, is common to all prisoners and is something they will have to deal with in the future. The consequences are dire: many offenders can lose their jobs and be sent back to prison for failing to supply information about their previous criminal convictions.
So does Simmonds feel that this area of pro bono is adequately covered? BPP has a pro bono scheme that concentrates on litigants in prison, but Simmonds would “like to see advice being given to prisoners on a national basis”, which is arguably in their best interests.
Simmonds has recently branched out from prison work and is working on a new project that covers debt issues and legal rights relevant to individuals and small businesses. This is the first project by the Institute of Legal Executives (Ilex) in which law students from Doncaster College will participate. He will also be sitting as a panellist on the Joint National Pro Bono Conference in November this year, with Martin Curtis, project manager for students and law schools at LawWorks.