Sarah Henchoz, partner at Allen & Overy, discusses the challenges and rewards of pro bono work.
Allen & Overy Litigation Employment partner Sarah Henchoz has been giving pro bono advice at legal advice clinics since she was a trainee. In 2013, Sarah became the champion for A&O’s clinic work at Toynbee Hall and South West London Law Centre at Battersea.
The evening clinics are open to members of the public, seeking free legal advice on a range of topics - from housing and consumer issues, to employment rights. The clients who attend are often vulnerable and the straightforward advice they receive can be life-changing.
"In our jobs, we deal with large domestic companies as well as multinational employers and the advice they seek from us reflects this", Sarah says. "While that work is incredibly exciting and challenging - and often involves us being at the cutting edge - I wanted to stay connected to the problems that people encounter on a day-to-day basis, and to help people who cannot afford to seek legal representation.
"Many clients come to us because they are confused, upset and angry about what has happened to them. They don’t know where to turn, or how to try and resolve the situation they find themselves in. Sometimes even the smallest amount of guidance from us, whether legal or practical, can help them make sense of their problem.
"I remember one client who held a live-in position with her employer but who had been unlawfully dismissed and therefore not only had no income, but also had nowhere to live. We helped her find somewhere to stay as well as recovering her personal belongings from her former employer.
"Eventually, we also managed to secure compensation for her for the amounts owed to her and compensation for the loss she had suffered in terms of future income and accommodation. She was so grateful and you could see that our support had made a huge difference."
The issues faced by clients at Toynbee Hall and Battersea may seem a world away from the work of commercial firms like A&O, but there are more connections than you might think.
"While the kind of employment issues I am involved in on a day-to-day basis at A&O are on a much larger scale than those at the clinics, seeing how employers actions and decisions affect employees, and effectively seeing things from the other side of the fence helps me to ensure I can still give a rounded view", Sarah says.
There are practical skills lawyers can gain, too. "You have to explain complex legal issues simply and clearly to those who usually have very little legal knowledge. You need to be able to deliver news that the client may not want to hear about the merits of their claim", Sarah says. "Above all, being able to give something back and helping those who really would be lost without the support the clinics give them, is hugely rewarding."