Pro bono – good for the community, good for lawyers too
Now pro bono plays a more important role than ever before, due to the very significant and well-documented cuts to legal aid following the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO).
Pro bono work can vary widely, and help all kinds of clients. One of my most memorable pro bono experiences was being able to help a homeless man to secure accommodation. The client simply would not have been able to afford a lawyer if a fee had been charged. Of course, this is really typical of pro bono work: it often involves helping clients in life changing ways with issues which they otherwise would not be able to seek advice on.
Pro bono work doesn't just benefit the client. There are also benefits for the lawyers who choose to give up their time for this purpose, and the law firms who employ them.
Why do pro bono
For individual lawyers
To build on existing legal skills
- Junior lawyers in particular can find themselves doing pro bono work with more client contact or responsibility than they are used to
To increase organisational and management skills
- Firms often task their trainees to get involved with organising the firm's pro bono activity – scheduling, liaising with other organisations etc. Again, this is a way to improve skills early on in your career which you may not otherwise have the opportunity to practice
Volunteering is good for your mental health! It has been shown to decrease risk of depression, increase confidence, and give a sense of meaning and wellbeing.
- Volunteering promotes positivity amongst employees and can increase job satisfaction and retention rates. People generally feel proud to work in a firm which takes this kind of community work seriously
- A strong pro bono offering is something that prospective trainees ask about and consider to be important
- Involvement in pro bono work gives a strong message about a firm's values - to staff, clients, and others. It can enhance the way in which the firm is seen in the community.
- Involvement in student pro bono projects means access to bright, keen, passionate prospective lawyers.
The Law Society says:
"There is no question that a robust pro bono programme is a sign of a law firm's strength. It reflects the commitment of the firm to its employees, its community, the rule of law, and it justifiably burnishes the institution's reputation for hard work and creativity."
For the community
The benefits for the community are obvious. Lawyers are trained to understand how to navigate the law and resolve legal problems. It is easy to forget how difficult it can be for those without any legal training to find the answer to a legal problem. Many people cannot afford to pay for advice, and so free legal help provided on a pro bono basis can be invaluable.
How do I get involved?
There are different options for lawyers who want to do pro bono work. Many law firms offer pro bono opportunities to their lawyers, and may even have a dedicated pro bono lawyer who co-ordinates this. But if your firm doesn't have anything like this, opportunities still exist.
It may be useful to start by considering how you would like to make a difference: helping people in your local community obtain access to justice? Helping US death row prisoners? Helping local start-ups or charities?
- There are likely to be opportunities to volunteer locally: Local law centres often require volunteers; Many University Law Schools have legal advice clinics and other pro bono projects which require solicitor involvement and supervision. LawWorks is a charity which can help to match you up with volunteering opportunities.
- The Free Representation Unit (FRU) offers opportunities for volunteers (law students and solicitors) to support clients in employment and social security tribunals.
- The Law Society has useful information about international projects requiring volunteers
- There are many other national and international projects whose details can be found online.
Practical steps for law firms
Although solicitors can volunteer individually, many firms coordinate pro bono opportunities for their staff. This is a positive thing: junior lawyers are far more likely to get involved if they realise that their pro bono activity is valued by their employer. Firms can promote pro bono activity by:
- Appointing a pro bono champion, who is a partner or senior lawyer. A strong message "from the top" that this is a worthwhile thing to do will lead to greater involvement by employees.
- Setting up a time recording code for pro bono work. It will encourage employees to think of pro bono work as valuable work, despite being non-chargeable.
- Finding out what kind of pro bono work employees would like to get involved in - and supporting employees by seeking out opportunities.
- Encouraging employees to get involved if they are interested.
Most importantly - if you are interested, get involved! A lot of lawyers doing a little pro bono work adds up over time to make a big difference.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.