Pro bono work in new areas of expertise

Volunteering in a new area of expertise is one of the great draws of pro bono work, but it comes with risks attached. Claire Butler and Nina Garnham discuss how to mitigate the risks and meet your professional obligations.
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The skills required for pro bono work – particularly when advising individuals – can often take lawyers beyond their usual field of expertise. For example, commercial lawyers (including trainees) may choose to work on entirely new areas of law, such as on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers, or to volunteer at legal clinics providing advice on housing or disability benefits.

There are many advantages to volunteering in new areas, including:

  • new skills and expertise
  • personal and professional development
  • providing valuable pro bono assistance to a greater number of people who are unable to access legal advice

Given these benefits, firms are encouraged to support their lawyers where possible to undertake pro bono work in new areas of law.

Your obligations

Pro bono work must be carried out in accordance with each lawyer’s professional obligations.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Standards and Regulations apply to pro bono work in the same way as they apply for other client work.

Lawyers should act:

  • in the best interests of each client, and
  • in a way that upholds public trust and confidence

Under the pro bono protocol, work for pro bono clients should be undertaken to the same standard as work for fee-paying clients.

Assessing your risk

Unless safeguards are in place, the risk arises that a lawyer may not be fulfilling their professional obligations to provide competent advice in the best interests of their client. This could result in negligent – or at least sub-standard – advice.

Chapter 7 of the Law Society pro bono manual highlights where:

  • there may be a mismatch between a lawyer’s expertise and the needs of their client
  • transferable skills may be sufficient to give competent advice, or
  • more in-depth training is required

Whilst these risks are present in many pro bono cases, there can be significant differences between undertaking pro bono work outside your main area of expertise:

  • within the firm/company that you work for, that is, in a structured environment, or
  • outside the formal structure provided by your firm/company where safeguards have been put in place

If you have any concerns about the pro bono work you have undertaken, talk to your pro bono manager or your manager to find a solution.

1. Within your firm/organisation

Training and supervision are essential to mitigate risks of providing sub-standard or negligent advice.

To equip you with the necessary tools and skills, organisations should provide – or facilitate access to:

  • relevant and adequate training before pro bono work is undertaken
  • access to adequate supervision as required

Both training and supervision may be undertaken in house or by external bodies, for example by:

  • your firm/organisation’s pro bono team (provided they have the relevant expertise)
  • your charity partner
  • the legal clinic at which your lawyers volunteer, or
  • a third-party organisation

If in doubt, contact the relevant person dealing with any new project/clinic work.

2. Outside the structure of your firm/organisation

Given the risks highlighted above, you should proceed with caution if providing pro bono advice outside the structure of your firm/organisation in an area that is not your main professional area of expertise.

Ask yourself whether:

  • you are competent to advise on this area, and
  • whether your insurance will cover this

If not, you should turn down the opportunity, based on professional standards of care.

There may be opportunities to seek relevant training on specific areas to enable you to carry out such pro bono work and you’ll need to carefully consider what resources are available.

Provided that the risks are properly considered, professional obligations upheld and adequate training and supervision provided – doing pro bono work in a new area of law can allow pro bono volunteers to help in the areas of unmet legal need that are most in need of support.

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