A case for pro bono

by Sinéad Corcoran
20 May 2014

Pro bono publico. This humble Latin phrase has developed into a sector of its own right. Sinéad Corcoran of LawWorks discusses what it means and why you should get involved.

What is pro bono?

Pro bono involves leveraging the skills of legal professionals to help those in need. It encapsulates volunteering with any legal element, from developing legal factsheets to advising clients in a legal advice clinic.

The pro-bono sector has matured in the past few decades, and the launch of the National Pro Bono Centre in 2010 has spearheaded recent growth.

Pro-bono organisations such as LawWorks, the Bar Pro Bono Unit and CILEx Pro Bono Trust have expanded their clout and partnerships, while funding bodies such as the Access to Justice Foundation and the network of Legal Support Trusts continue to provide essential funds to law centres, advice clinics, strategic projects and the pro-bono community.

Outside the National Pro Bono Centre, pro bono has grown in impact and ambit. Pro bono, and volunteering generally, are becoming central to many law firms’ offerings, and senior members of the profession are playing a proactive role in advocating for the pro-bono sector.

This culture has initiated a readiness in the profession to engage in pro bono, better strategise partnerships and respond, in whatever way it can, to the reduction in public funding for legal aid.

Pro-bono networks, both here and internationally, have become more focused and vocal and, with the forthcoming arrival of the PILnet European Pro Bono Forum to London in November this year, we are expecting these voices to further resonate.

How can I get involved?

For students, pro-bono projects are usually hosted by their university or law school and may cover any type of legal volunteering, from providing legal advice to clients under supervision to engaging in legal research in partnership with a student society.

Through the Student Pro Bono project developed in partnership with Queen Mary University, LawWorks has created a community designed to nurture and support pro-bono students and educate them on the rewarding benefits of engaging in pro bono work.

Law firms regularly develop partnerships with law centres, community groups, universities and pro-bono clearing houses to streamline their pro-bono offerings and increase the efficiency and latitude of the services they provide the community.

Practitioners often cite professional and personal development, skills enhancement and contribution to the local community as motivations for participating in pro-bono projects.

Of late, much movement is being made to support senior members of the profession engaged in pro bono to ensure we have senior role models to endorse and progress the sector.

In this aim, LawWorks, with sponsorship from Close Brothers, has developed the Fellowship Programme which provides opportunities for senior lawyers to enhance their portfolio of skills and assistance with planning for life post-practice.

Further opportunities available to lawyers through LawWorks include casework for Community Groups, CPD-accredited training in areas of social welfare law and support in developing legal advice clinics.

Why do we engage in pro bono work?

It seems curious that an entire profession has established an altruistic act like pro bono as a customary practice.

However, working at LawWorks has enhanced my confidence that, in the words of Margaret Mead, ‘a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world’.

I receive emails every day from solicitors and law students seeking to volunteer their skills to help the community in whatever way they can. Witnessing the enthusiasm these professionals have for supporting the sector and advancing access to justice makes me believe that some real stars have emerged from the LASPO tunnel.

There is a popular mantra in the sector that enunciates: ‘Pro bono: It’s part of being a lawyer’. Another common refrain pronounces: ‘Pro bono is adjunct to, but not a substitute for legal aid’.

Perhaps as much as anything, the pro-bono sector aims to spread the former message while empathising with the sentiment behind the latter.

LawWorks works to instil the ethos of pro bono in all lawyers from law school onwards, hoping that they will carry the enthusiasm with them through qualification and onwards to become the senior role models the profession badly needs.