The good life

My life’s pretty
different now and I’ve
achieved a lot. There’s
nothing I regret – the
university law clinic
has been a truly
amazing experience
Alasdair Stewart, student,
University of Strathclyde

By Laura Manning

Alasdair Stewart lives and breathes pro bono work, so much so that he has dedicated the majority of his four-year honours law degree to being on constant call at the University of Strathclyde’s prestigious law clinic.

What’s more, his infectious passion was recently recognised by Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who presented him with a prize for his contributions at the Attorney General Student Pro Bono Awards ceremony at the House of Commons.

Unusually for an ambitious would-be lawyer, pro bono has been much more than words to add to ­Stewart’s CV – it has been a life-altering experience that has not only changed him on a personal level but also changed his outlook on the legal sector and his future career.

He says his drive comes partly from his determination to prove a former assistant head teacher wrong in his conclusion that Stewart was not good enough to pursue a career in law and ­his desire to ­overcome his initial rejection by the law clinic.

“Professor [Donald] Nicolson wanted to ensure I did it for the right reasons and I understand why,” says Stewart.

Stewart admits that one of the reasons he opted for pro bono work initially was to improve his chances of “getting a nice job and a nice big office”, but he quickly grasped that he would have to alter that attitude to be taken on at the clinic.

“He’s not your normal kind of law professor,” jokes Stewart when asked about the man responsible for the success of Strathclyde’s law clinic. “Professor Nicolson wants people to do law for the right reasons and believes lawyers should make a difference.”

Stewart’s role at the law clinic has evolved over the years, with him completing a wide range of tasks from settling cases to managing the workforce as student director, all the while juggling completing his degree.

His greatest achievement so far has been creating a more efficient case management system for the clinic – just one of the accomplishments that won over the Attorney General Student Pro Bono Awards judges.

Nicolson, who nominated Stewart for the award, describes the system as “revolutionary”, allowing fast access to electronic files and a range of statistics, and ­transforming the clinic “into a highly professional organisation”.

Being a self-professed “IT whiz”, Stewart wanted to use his skills to improve efficiency and dedicated his 2008 summer holiday to creating the system. This is testament to the level of personal time he has given to the clinic.

“I’ve been constantly able to call upon him,” wrote Nicolson in his award reference, “often at very short notice and late at night, for statistics, advice and ­suggestions.”

But the personal gain has been just as great for ­Stewart, who describes himself as having “changed entirely”, speaking of his experience at the clinic as character-­building and one that has opened his eyes.

“You begin to understand that we are so fortunate,” he says. “People are struggling and we can make a ­difference.”

From a young age Stewart had an interest in IT, which, he recalls, built the foundations of his interest in law through exhausting a number of legal statutes in his work. His knowledge of pro bono work has transformed since he joined the clinic, as has his ambition. He is writing his dissertation on the subject and is ­determined to do a large amount of pro bono work each month during his career.

Despite all the advantages, there are a few ­complaints. Stewart admits that people being there for the wrong reasons is frustrating, asserting that “it makes us feel so useless giving training when people just up and leave when they get a training contract”.

Despite this, he does not decry the experience people will gain for their CVs through their work at the clinic, stressing how his skills and knowledge have grown since he joined. His most exciting memory is working on a sex discrimination case, referred by the local Citizen’s Advice Bureau, against an international law firm.

“It was a learning experience and a big pressure as a student to have a partner breathing down your neck to settle, but still having the ability to stand your ground and say, ‘What you are offering is too low – go back and sort it out’,” says Stewart.

Despite all this, like many aspiring lawyers Stewart finds himself nearing graduation day without a job lined up. He hopes to either pursue employment law or continue to tie the knot between his IT and legal skills.

As he looks back at the past four years he is proud of his accomplishments, although remains modest.

“There are always small things you wish to do better, but I know my life is pretty different now and I’ve achieved a lot,” he says. “There’s nothing I regret – the clinic has been a truly amazing experience.”