Developing a public legal education programme
This guide is aimed at partners, corporate social responsibility (CSR) professionals and anyone involved with pro bono and CSR work in law firms. It will help you understand how and why public legal education (PLE) should be built into your firm’s CSR strategy or community engagement programme. It also provides details of organisations that can help.
Getting involved in PLE can have a range of benefits for law firms and individual solicitors.
Corporate social responsibility
Many businesses recognise the valuable contribution they can make to their local communities and feel they have a responsibility to give something back. Firms can offer PLE as part of a CSR programme.
Some organisations already allow staff to do voluntary pro bono work. However, PLE offers different choices in volunteering opportunities as it does not require staff to do their day job on a voluntary basis. Instead it gives solicitors alternative ways to use their knowledge to benefit the public.
PLE lets solicitors volunteer as much or as little time as they can manage. They do not necessarily have to make a long-term commitment.
By working with local schools, your firm can get to know talented young people who may be able to work for your firm in the future and inspire them with an interest in law.
Law graduates may look at firms’ CSR programmes when choosing which jobs to apply for. Having a good employee volunteering programme can be a selling point for potential trainees.
PLE projects are an opportunity for solicitors to do something different. They can be a rewarding way to use legal knowledge and can boost staff morale.
PLE projects have been found to improve how staff see their employer and make them feel more valued. This improves staff satisfaction and retention.
Volunteering allows firms to help the local community while upskilling staff at the same time.
Solicitors who are involved in PLE projects can develop their own skills and knowledge, often challenging themselves in new areas.
There’s evidence of a link between employee volunteering and developing skills, including communication, time management and leadership.
Raising your profile
Being involved in community-based programmes can build your firm’s reputation, as people will see that it’s playing an active and worthwhile role in their community.
Client organisations increasingly expect their legal providers to do some form of CSR so this may help your firm attract new business.
Local media are generally keen to publish ‘good news’ stories and PLE work can be a good opportunity to publicise your firm’s work with the local community.
Decide what you want to achieve from your PLE programme. This might include:
- raising the profile of your firm
- improving staff satisfaction and retention
- improving links with your local community
- helping to tackle a specific legal issue
You should have clear outcomes for your PLE programme, to help you celebrate your successes and learn from any failures.
Making an impact
Does your project meet a need in the local community? Take time to understand what your local school, community or law centre needs, so that you can design a project that will have an impact.
Will you have enough volunteers available when you need them to work on the project?
You may need backup volunteers, in case someone cannot take part at short notice. You do not want to disappoint a class of schoolchildren if a big case suddenly needs to be prioritised.
Setting a budget
Make sure you’re clear about your budget and how much your PLE project will cost. Some projects will take staff time, and others will also need financial resources.
Make sure your budget is in place to complete the whole project. For example, your firm might develop excellent guidance, but you’ll also need the resources to get the message out to the community.
You can deliver PLE in many ways. The model you choose will depend on what works best for your firm and what you want to achieve. A good PLE programme often uses more than one method to achieve its goals.
Face-to-face PLE work can include:
- classroom teaching
- training courses
- visits to schools, youth clubs, prisons or other venues
- mentoring programmes
This type of work is more likely to help the public improve their skills, knowledge and confidence, and to stimulate action such as getting involved in a campaign. However, it can be time consuming for solicitors.
Printed or online information
This type of PLE work might include:
- producing leaflets for the public about legal issues
- producing packs for schools
- publishing information for the public on your firm’s website, or on other websites aimed at the public such as charity sites
Printed or online methods are more flexible than face to face. They can also reach a larger number of people. However, they’re less likely to enhance the public’s skills or provide the same interaction with the local community.
Case study: educational publications
In 2013, the solicitors firm Olswang published one of a series of educational publications from London-based charity Guy Fox History Project Ltd, called How the World REALLY Works. The series breaks down complex topics, such as banking, insurance and law, so that primary school children can understand them. It also aims to help raise children’s career ambitions.
Over 20 volunteers from Olswang worked with Guy Fox History Project Ltd, a team of barristers from Blackstone Chambers and children from John Donne Primary School in Peckham, London to create the publication.
The volunteers worked alongside the children through a series of educational and creative workshops. The children drew pictures of legal landmarks, key historical developments and legal concepts. The drawings were used throughout the book, bringing to life the story of the English legal system and helping to explain the subject simply and effectively.
Guy Fox History Project Ltd printed 10,000 copies of the book for primary schools across London, including each primary school in Olswang’s local London borough of Camden.
Working with other organisations
Many firms choose to partner with a charity or community organisation for PLE work. These organisations may run existing programmes that you can take part in, and they can provide a PLE model for your firm to use.
Which organisations you approach for support will depend on the type of work you want to get involved in.
Organisations that can support you are listed at the end of this guide.
Case study: working with clients on PLE
Simmons & Simmons has a longstanding relationship with Young Citizens and has worked with its clients to deliver PLE in schools.
Simmons & Simmons works with its client Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group to deliver Lawyers in Schools sessions to students at St Saviour’s & St Olave’s School in Southwark, London. Volunteers from both businesses work together in the classroom.
The sessions have benefits including increasing business opportunities by strengthening relationships with clients, improving employees’ skills and, most importantly, developing young people’s legal capability.
The Simmons & Simmons volunteers include both senior and junior staff. They find the sessions an excellent way to informally network with the client, while giving back to their local community.
Running your own programme
If your firm has the resources, you may decide to develop your own PLE opportunities in-house.
Some firms focus their PLE efforts on a specific theme, such as human rights or youth engagement. Others choose to cover a wide area of law but focus on working with a specific school or community group.
The benefits of having a theme include:
- building knowledge and expertise in the relevant areas
- a more coherent programme
- a greater impact by targeting a specific area
- sense of ownership for the whole programme from the volunteers
When setting up a PLE programme, you’ll need to consider who will manage the programme long-term.
Many firms will have dedicated CSR and/or pro bono teams which will be happy to lead on PLE. For other firms, developing a PLE programme will be their first venture into CSR.
Possible models include giving responsibility for the programme to:
- individual partners or associates
- a CSR or pro bono manager
- a committee set up to run the project, which will often be made up of partners and associates from across the firm, helping to ensure maximum engagement
Whichever model you decide on, it’s generally better for PLE work to be managed centrally, rather than allowing individual solicitors to independently develop their own opportunities. A central structure will give your firm oversight of the work done by staff, as well as allowing staff to feel that their managers value the time they spend on PLE.
Recruiting and maintaining volunteers can be a challenge, regardless of how good a programme you put together.
Ways of getting staff involved include:
- recognition – such as highlighting the volunteers’ work in internal newsletters or through staff awards
- finding issues that your staff care about – you can ask staff which social issues they’re interested in and what part of the community they would like to help, and find opportunities that match this
- champions – using partners to champion individual projects or the whole PLE programme, to demonstrate commitment to PLE from the most senior level in the firm
- providing a variety of work, from desk-based research to classroom activities – this will allow people to volunteer for work that matches their skills, availability and interests
- business development – pairing up with other law firms or clients to deliver PLE
Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law
The Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law is dedicated to the study, promotion and enhancement of the rule of law worldwide. It does this through research, publications, training and events.
It runs a citizenship teaching project that provides schools with resources on the rule of law, including lesson plans and examples that engage students with topical issues about democracy, justice and rights.
Young Citizens is an education charity that’s supported and funded by the Law Society. It works with schools to educate and inspire young people and build their life skills, confidence and knowledge.
PLE is at the heart of its work. Over 80% of UK secondary schools have taken part in one of its programmes or used its resources.
The aim of all Young Citizens PLE programmes is to increase young people’s understanding of the law and their ability to use it. Skills based legal volunteering is a fundamental part of its work in schools. Teachers say that legal professionals coming into schools brings the law to life and makes a real difference to skills and knowledge.
Legal Experts in Schools
Young Citizens’ Legal Experts in Schools programme aims to help young people understand the law and the legal system, their rights and responsibilities and how the law affects their everyday lives.
It places practising and trainee lawyers in the classroom to work with young people in small groups, using Young Citizens’ interactive educational resources.
Demand for the programme from schools outstrips supply and Young Citizens is always looking for new partners. Young Citizens allocates an account manager to fully organise the programme for its partners. There’s an annual charge which depends on the size and turnover of the partner.
Law for Life
Law for Life: the Foundation for Public Legal Education is an education and information charity. It aims to increase access to justice by providing everyone with an awareness of their legal rights together with the confidence and skills to assert them.
The charity provides multimedia information and education that explains in a straightforward way how to manage legal situations. It runs the AdviceNow website, which draws together online information about the law and rights.
Law for Life can help law firms to develop or improve their PLE work. For example, it can help your firm design training, produce information or build staff’s skills.
Legal Education Foundation
The Legal Education Foundation provides grants to fund projects that will promote legal education and the study of law.
It’s looking for projects that will:
- increase public understanding of the law and the ability to use it
- advance high-quality thinking, training and practice in legal education and legal services to make sure legal needs are met
- increase access to employment in the legal profession and advance social mobility and diversity
National Justice Museum
The National Justice Museum is based in Nottingham and runs educational activities in Nottingham, London and the North.
It provides workshops and exhibitions at places of legal interest, such as courtrooms and museum spaces, so that school and public groups can learn about the law and justice system and its role in contributing to a fairer society.
The National Justice Museum welcomes corporate supporters and can work with organisations on their CSR programmes.
Street Law is a not-for-profit organisation that promotes legal literacy and human rights. It’s based in the US. The approach is also used in the UK, where it’s known as Streetlaw, and is a recognised model of PLE volunteering opportunities for students in law schools across England and Wales.
Students give interactive learning presentations on the law to groups such as primary and secondary school pupils, prison inmates, community groups and the homeless. Universities and law schools run their own Streetlaw projects, and many rely on the help and support of solicitors to make their programmes work.
Youth Access is the national membership organisation for young people’s information, advice, counselling and support services (YIACS). YIACS provide a range of services to meet young people’s social, emotional and mental health needs, including:
- social welfare advice
- health clinics
- community education
- personal support
Members of Youth Access respond to over 1 million enquiries a year on issues such as homelessness, benefits, debt and health.