Good comes around: pro bono as a sole practitioner
During the pandemic, Yomi Oni-Williams found herself running her law practice single-handedly, home-schooling her two children and continuing to volunteer for Citizens Advice. Yomi was highly commended for her pro bono work in the Law Society Awards 2021, after giving free legal advice to over 180 vulnerable people. Here, Yomi shares her story.
Reflecting on the whole year, being shortlisted for the Law Society Award was a highlight for me.
When I read the reference Citizens Advice gave me, I was actually a bit moved! I can't believe that I did all that!
Then, looking back at the list of people I was able to help, I thought: “Wow, there was no paralegal, legal secretary, or anyone helping me – I did this all by myself. I'm not a nurse in the NHS or a doctor or anything, but I gave what I could at that time.”
There are so many people who want and need legal advice, but if you don't have money for an initial consultation with a solicitor, you can't get it. It's so hard.
Before I qualified, I worked with a community health council in London, and then I volunteered at the central library, giving legal advice.
Sometimes we had to turn people away, asking them to come back next week – so I’ve seen the need is there. I've seen how people struggle and that's always been with me.
Now that I'm doing my own thing in terms of practice, I can do what I feel passionate about and dedicate my Thursday afternoons to free legal advice sessions.
I’ve been working with Citizens Advice in Luton and Dunstable since 2013, giving advice to people who don’t have somewhere else they can turn to, or signposting them to the right charity if it's not my area of work.
Working through the pandemic
When the country went into lockdown, I remember thinking: where do we start?
I furloughed everyone at my practice because I wasn’t sure where things were going, and then I emailed Citizen’s Advice and said: “We can still do this – we can adopt the same model over the telephone.” They were so happy!
But working from home was tough. I found myself working around the clock because there was so much distraction during the day. Then, of course, I still needed to earn a living and had my responsibility to my clients.
It boiled down to planning: I sat down and made a timetable for myself and my children, and once we got ourselves organised, things moved more smoothly.
Even so, I don't know how I did it! I could have been put off the fact that I was basically a one-man show up until late 2020, when my paralegal came back into the office, but I’m very determined and I knew I could do it.
Each case goes a long way
As lockdown hit, there were even more people requiring advice, especially parents with contact agreements.
I remember a police officer who was really affected when he couldn't see his child – that case stuck with me because you think nothing can bother police officers, but they are only human.
The police were very busy during the pandemic, so being able to get advice quickly meant so much to him. He was so grateful and sent me a photo of the two of them together – that's the kind of thing that's worth all the trouble!
Hearing about people’s problems can be stressful sometimes, but I've learned how to deal with it over the years. Of course, sometimes work slips into my personal life but you just have to slip it back out again and try to keep work, family and mental health separate.
I always think what goes around comes around.
I've had colleagues ask me “Do you even have time to earn fees?” But when you give, you get back – that's my belief.
I'm not short of work, and even though my fee-earning time may not be as high as theirs, everything still works out.
I see it as balancing the scales of justice. People need to able to access advice, whatever you have in your pocket.
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.