Manchester Metropolitan University

Bare essentials: why students should get involved in pro bono

Pro bono work should form a vital part of law students' education, says Emma Goodwin

Pro bono work places volunteers in front of real clients and allows them to develop practical legal skills

Pro bono work places volunteers in front of real clients and allows them to develop practical legal skills

Originally published in Solicitors Journal

By Emma Goodwin, Pro Bono Director at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Pro bono publico, means for the public good. It is often used to describe professional work undertaken voluntarily, without payment.

It is more than just free legal work. It is people providing essential professional services to those who are unable to afford or access them.

At law schools across the country, the next generation of lawyers are working on a variety of pro bono projects across a number of areas of law. Pro bono work sees lawyers and law students coming together and taking responsibility for their impact on society.

Pro Bono volunteers and organisations have responded to many changes over the last five years, particularly linked to the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), which significantly reduced the legal aid budget and removed the right to legal representation in a number of areas of law.

The Ministry of Justice is reviewing the impact of LASPO but in the meantime, pro bono is still needed, and the need and demand is always changing.

Varied cases

As volunteers, law students get involved in a variety of cases. They could  be representing clients with welfare benefits appeals in tribunals; supporting litigants-in-person at court; assisting start-up businesses with lawyers in a business law clinic; providing research on legal advice lines; supporting caseworkers for the homeless; or even working on death row cases in the States.

The involvement and commitment of pro bono organisations and pro bono lawyers gives students the opportunity to apply their knowledge, skills and training - under supervision - to support communities. The continuing popularity and impact of pro bono projects in law schools only emphasises the demand for, and importance, of pro bono in today’s legal sector.

Through pro bono, new ways of meeting legal needs can be explored.

In a project with the Greater Manchester Law Centre, a charitable organisation providing free legal advice and campaigning for free access to justice, a team of 20 Manchester Metropolitan Law School student volunteers have compiled Employment and Support Allowance appeals for 113 clients.

The students have represented them at tribunal, which has led to the overturning of a number of decisions and to the reinstatement of benefit entitlement. The team have won 77 of the cases and recovered in excess of £265,000 for the clients.

Ngaryan Li, a Supervising Solicitor at the centre, said the work carried out by the students is often life changing. “Several of their clients have told us that they simply could not have done it without them,” she said.

In much of the pro bono work that law students undertake, they do not represent clients in court or tribunals, but rather mainly conduct interviews and research. At the Greater Manchester Law Centre, the students spend many hours on the client’s case, do all the preparation, liaise with the client and then take the case to the tribunal, representing them in person before a judge.

Legal aid for these types of cases has been withdrawn, which means clients would normally have to represent themselves. Some may find this difficult and without the help of trained pro bono volunteers, it is likely many more would simply have to live with the wrong decision.

Developing skills

With suitable training and supervision - as well as the obvious and vital benefits of providing much needed legal services to those in need and increasing the client capacity of pro bono organisations -  pro bono work can offer enormous benefits for law students and junior lawyers in terms of developing a huge variety of skills and boosting their self-belief and employability.

Undertaking pro bono work offers law students unparalleled opportunity to apply their skills and knowledge with real clients in practical situations, something they just cannot get in the classroom, and something often trainees and paralegals also cannot find in the workplace.

Through pro bono work, they get to see first-hand the impact of the changes that are taking place in the legal sector. They are alert to new developments, inspired to bring fresh ideas and can often be part of developing the changes needed.

Law schools respond to learners’ needs and changes in legal education. Pro bono responds to the needs of individuals and the impact of changes in the law, but they also must both respond to the changing needs in the legal sector. New legal technological advancements are seen everywhere; in court processes, in legal business models and through artificial intelligence. We will continue to see significant changes that are needed to simply keep up with the demand for speed, quality, consistency and cost-efficiency.

Old needs, new ways

Through pro bono, new ways of meeting legal needs can be explored. Projects can grow using new technology, which can in turn equip young lawyers with the skills to understand, use and often develop, the technology they will need in the digital workplace.

Across the globe, pro bono lawyers, students and tech specialists are already using technology to increase access to justice. This includes free AI tools that make the legal research process more efficient, automated platforms to process asylum requests, a platform that matches pro bono lawyers to cases and an app that provides simple steps to navigate through the court process.

Working on pro bono in this way is an opportunity for new generations of lawyers to be at the forefront of legal tech innovations and can open their eyes to new ways of working in the law - now there is even an option to be a ‘lawyer who codes’.

Across the globe, pro bono lawyers, students and tech specialists are already using technology to increase access to justice.

Technology will continue to expand. Communities will continue to evolve. Government policy and legislation will continue to change. Economic conditions will continue to fluctuate meaning legal education will remain out of reach for many and injustices will always arise.

It is for these reasons that pro bono work and public legal education are increasingly important to our society. They provide access to justice, support people, strengthen and build community relationships, bring about change and advance capacity for innovation.

For a meaningful professional career, lawyers at all levels must understand the value of and need for pro bono legal services.

Engaging in pro bono activities inspires people to carry the ethos of pro bono throughout their careers and brings about change in many forms. As a profession, we must continue to make sure that law students and junior lawyers are motivated and involved in the continuous improvement and delivery of our justice system and profession.

As professionals from all walks of life, it is our obligation to consider the interests of our communities and the consequences of legal change on them, and in the process, in an ever changing technological world, have the opportunity to develop new skills ourselves.

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