Bolton from the blue: a joined-up approach to pro bono
Over the past two years, the small team at University of Bolton Legal Advice Centre has made a big difference in the local community. The team was highly commended in our Law Society awards for their innovative approach to pro bono work.
Ian Bowden is an assistant teaching professor and a practising solicitor advocate. Nikolina and Zoe are both students in their final year, working in the centre.
We asked them about partnering with local organisations to help over 270 people and learning through pro bono work.
Ian: “I have an immense sense of pride in all the students who work in the Legal Advice Centre. This is an optional degree unit but it's great that they come and use their skills to help others.
“Students work on at least three cases, building interview skills, and by the end they lead the client interview. The environment is as close to real life as possible and it’s lovely to see how clients respond to our students’ work.
Help at the centre of the community
Ian: “We had a local community who needed access to legal advice, and it was becoming less and less available. We run a drop-in service so clients can pop in to see us as they as they go about their day in Bolton. At least 70 cases go through the centre in around 12 weeks, so we’re very busy!
Zoe: “We're very approachable and friendly – it’s important to have a relaxed environment and relatable people who can help to break down clients’ problems.”
Nikolina: “It feels great to be doing something to help this community. We see people coming back or new people coming just from hearing about us via word of mouth. Anyone can walk in and know that someone is going listen to their problem – we care and will help.
Passing round the baton
Ian: “There's a limit to what we can do as an advice centre. We never wanted clients to have to repeat stages if they need a strict legal solution, or if it’s an area beyond my remit. Bolton has a very active legal community, so there are many experienced solicitors on our doorstep.
“Last year, a client wanted to enforce their claim in an adverse possession matter. One of our students wrote an advice letter on the case, so the solicitor knew the whole story and where the client was up to.
"It was lovely because the solicitor wrote back to thank the student, saying how the letter helped them to know exactly where to pick up the baton.
Partnering up in the pandemic
Ian: “Up until March 2020 we were a face-to-face centre, but almost overnight we switched to an entirely virtual model. Many of our clients were not familiar with digital platforms, so we were concerned about their ability to access our service.
“We partnered with the Digital Inclusion Project in Bolton, who provide IT support such as iPads and training to people who are less confident with technology.
“It worked incredibly well. We saw our client numbers increase and the students got to mirror what was happening in-practice. We now have a hybrid model so people can talk to us in-person or via Zoom or Teams. Every week so far has been a 50:50 split.
Learning through pro bono
Zoe: “I was nervous about the responsibility when we first started this module. Meeting clients face-to-face, you're going into unknown territory. I thought ‘if I mess this up, I'm not just messing it up for myself, I’m letting the client down’.
“I'm naturally quite reserved but it really helped to build my confidence and now I'm loving every second of it. I can walk away knowing that I've helped that client solve their problem and have put all my effort into it.”
Ian: “One moment that stands out for me was a student who was very shy but chose this module because they wanted to be challenged.
“I remember a drop-in session where four clients all came through the door at once. I turned round and this student had shaken the client’s hand and sat them down!
“Seeing that student reach the point where they felt comfortable taking ownership of what turned out be a very a serious case made a massive difference to me. It was brilliant to see the care and attention they put in to assist a member of our local community.”
Nikolina: “Balancing studying with the work in the Legal Advice Centre can be a challenge, but we find time to make it work because we know where it’s going to lead. Personally, I learn best through doing things; not reading about them.
“Ian has been a great mentor I’ve learned so much and it’s helped me to get a job in a law firm, working on clinical negligence and employment law. Maybe one day when we're qualified, we can come back and think: ‘I started here, now I'm there. It's amazing!’”
How to get involved
There are lots of ways to support pro bono work:
- join a Pro Bono Week event (1 to 5 November 2021)
- sign up to our Pro Bono Charter
- find guidance, toolkits and research on our Pro Bono page
Looking for legal advice?
The Law Society does not provide legal advice.
If you're looking for help getting pro bono support, our page for the public lists some organisations that can help.