Life at the Bar: The pros of pro bono

When was the last time you worked for someone for free? I don’t mean changing a lightbulb or washing the car. When is the last time you put in some real hard graft for no reward except another person’s gratitude?

Chances are, it was a very long time ago. Because, for the vast majority of us, there’s just no business case to make in favour of working for free.

At the bar, however, pro bono work is seen in an entirely different light. The Bar Pro Bono Unit is both popular and successful; it has been going for twenty years and has over 1000 panel members. Our friends across the pond are even more evangelical about it; the State of New York, for example, requires its attorneys to complete 50 hours of pro bono work before they can qualify.

It’s easy to understand why. As I think back over the pro bono cases I have worked on, I can see that they have all had a positive impact on my practice and my work habits. Here are just some of the benefits I have been able to identify:

  • Client handling. It is only when you engage in pro bono or direct access work that you realise just how peculiar the split profession is. I have never, for example, had to send what is essentially a “client care” letter; that side of things is usually dealt with by solicitors when they are first instructed. When doing pro bono, however, that doesn’t happen – so it is suddenly my responsibility to explain how the litigation process works, the parameters of my instructions, possible timescales and contingencies, and so on. Having to think clearly about all of those things is helpful in that it focuses your mind. It also reminds you how important they all are. I always take care now to discuss as many of those issues as I can with my instructing solicitors at the beginning of a case, to make sure that we are all on the same page and the message reaching the lay client is a consistent and achievable one. I also have a much more fundamental understanding and respect for the job that my instructing solicitors do on a day to day basis.
  • When your work is going directly to the lay client, you are not writing or speaking to someone who is necessarily fluent in “legalease.” This means you generally have to take the long way round; well-known cases or legal principles can’t be referenced casually by name, but have to be set out from first principles, to ensure that a reader who is not legally trained can easily follow the discussion. You can’t, however, be verbose – your written work must remain concise and easy to follow. These are all great habits to get into, and will likely endear you to judges of all levels, but it takes a huge amount of discipline, skill and effort to draft like this. I have found that the pro bono work I have done – particularly where I have had to produce a written advice – has markedly improved my drafting style overall.
  • When criminal barristers voiced their concerns about the legal aid cuts at a demonstration in London in 2014, many papers cared less about their cause than about their expensive handbags. Depressingly, this suggests that the profession is still perceived by many as a bunch of morally deficient fat cats. Pro bono is a fantastic answer to that criticism by demonstrating that those so-called fat cats will invest time, energy and enthusiasm – often in huge amounts – into cases that are deserving of their day in court. The more practitioners who offer their work for free, the harder it will be for that negative perception of the bar to stick.

All of the above are reasons why pro bono is useful to us. None of them are good reasons to do pro bono work. That is because there is, in my view, only one good reason for such work: we must fight for people who cannot fight for themselves.

Many, many lawyers embark upon this career because they once thought to themselves “I want to help people.” Does this mean they ought to put it those five fatal words on their pupillage application forms? Hell no. Nor does it mean they will spend their career consistently representing people whose causes they believe in.

However, pro bono work will often offer a rare opportunity to make good that early idealism. The pro bono unit’s client base is where the Davids of the legal world’s David and Goliath grudge matches hang out. Many of these people have suffered injustice and yet have been turned away by every other possible source of help.

Often this kind of work is firefighting – you might not be able to save a young family from eviction altogether, but you may well be able to buy them some time in which to secure alternative accommodation – but even that can be a godsend amongst those who believed there was noone willing to fight for them at all.

I am overwhelmingly proud of the independent bar and its ability to recognise, protect and promote the interests of those unable to protect themselves. Because this, my friends, is why we are all here. And that is what makes even the smallest of the small pro bono victories worth more than a thousand Goliaths.