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The Truth about Pro Bono Clinics

The Latin phrase pro bono publico translates as ‘for the public good’ but is more commonly shortened to pro bono and is used in reference to professional work, especially legal work, undertaken voluntarily and without payment.

By Editorial Team. Published 04 February 2019. Last updated 11 February 2020.

ULaw runs an award winning pro bono service but, for some students, the idea of advising real clients during their studies can be quite daunting. We caught up with Pro-Bono Co-ordinator Amanda Crutchley so she could give us her professional insight into the importance of pro bono clinics.

Pro Bono clinics endeavour to mirror private practice both in terms of the type of work students engage in and also the standard of work produced. The clinics invite legal enquiries from members of the public and students are assigned cases to research and advise the client upon. All work is conducted under the supervision of a qualified supervising solicitor.

Pro bono work can vary between clinics but students will generally have the opportunity to interview clients and analyse their legal issues. Under the guidance of the supervising solicitor the student will then research the client’s particular area of enquiry and thereafter produce a letter of advice/advice document. This procedure affords the student the opportunity to practice their interviewing, legal analysis, legal research and drafting skills. It also introduces the student to important regulatory concepts that they may not have had experience of previously such as 3rd party instructions.

The University of Law collaborates with a vast range of charities and organisations supporting clients with issues ranging from domestic violence to immigration to environmental law. This affords students the ability to select opportunities that are of interest to them.

Over recent years there has been significant cuts to legal aid availability. The result is that there are a significant number of people who are unable to secure access to justice; furthermore these people are often those from disadvantaged positions (financially and culturally) who will not be able to secure private legal representation. Pro Bono work cannot replace legal aid but it does make a significant difference to those who would not be able to access justice otherwise or navigate complex legal systems without it.  Through pro bono work students have ensured that clients have taken steps to re-establish contact with their children, obtain injunctions to prevent violence in their home, challenge unjust welfare benefit decisions and negligent landlords.

Whilst engaging in pro bono students develop essential legal skills that employers will be looking for; it is acknowledged that high quality, relevant work experience is now C.V. imperative. Pro Bono experience demonstrates to prospective employers that a student can time manage, is pro-active and has developed an understanding of law in practice. It also offers the students invaluable examples of when they have demonstrated key skills such as communication and professionalism.

I witness a student’s confidence and abilities grow significantly during their pro bono work. Pro bono engagement allows students to put into practice the law that they have been learning and to visualise how the law is applied. It also develops essential legal skills such as drafting concisely and coherently and advocacy skills. One student who successfully delivered a Streetlaw workshop at a college to 160 fourteen-year-old girls stated that he would never be worried about presenting again! Pro Bono work allows students to practice their legal skills in a supportive learning environment and to develop confidence in their abilities.

Awards are never the reason for engaging in pro bono work, however, they are a wonderful recognition of our students’ dedication to the work they are engaged in and also an acknowledgement of the immeasurable difference that pro bono advice and support can make to a person’s life. We have in the past few years won the Attorney General’s Law School Challenge Award, Bristol Law Society’s Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year Award & also Bristol Law Society’s “Team of the Year.” Our schemes and students have also been shortlisted for the LawWorks & Attorney General’s Student Pro Bono awards. We are proud of the pro bono opportunities our students engage in and often students say their pro bono work was invaluable in helping them achieve a Training Contract.

Students - don’t be nervous! You will be fully supervised throughout the experience and whilst we want students to feel challenged and a sense of achievement at the end of their experience, we offer all the necessary training, support and guidance to allow them to fully represent their client’s best interests. We encourage students to engage in opportunities that will take them out of their comfort zone and really develop and hone their legal skills; this also enhances confidence and employability

Students regularly engage in highly emotive and challenging cases; we know that the students are more than capable of assisting in these cases and it prepares them for future practice as they learn to balance empathy and emotion with objectivity and professionalism. Our students engage with clients experiencing situations such as eviction, domestic violence, likely deportation and loss of contact with children. We ensure that the students are comfortable with the work they engage in and that they are fully supported.

A recent challenging case for 2 students was assisting a mother who desperately wanted to prevent a violent father being allowed to spend time with the child of their relationship. The students committed many hours to assisting the client, accompanying her to court and providing the necessary advice and assistance to the client to allow her to be in the best possible position for her court hearing. The client was so grateful for the student’s support and advice she wanted to write to them personally to thank them. Those students will never forget that experience.

I am passionate about pro bono work. It gives the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our society a voice and allows them access to justice. Many students, like myself, embark on a legal career due to the fact they want to make a positive difference to people’s lives; pro bono work offers students an opportunity to experience this at the same time as developing essential legal skills.

It is wonderful to see the students’ reactions during their pro bono engagement; from the determination to address the injustice they see their client experiencing, to the elation once they have achieved and witnessed the impact of their hard work. Pro Bono allows students to experience, at the start of their careers, the opportunity to change lives and put law into action. It is an ethos of helping those in need that will remain with them throughout their careers. I catch a glimpse of the fantastic lawyer that student will become.

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