As Pro Bono Lawyer of 2012 – its not all about me, its about the clients..

In view of the fact I was voted Pro Bono Lawyer of 2012 at the Bar Conference, I feel I should probably wade into the pro bono discussion. As Steve Cornforth said in his recent blog on the subject ( http://thestevecornforthblog.blogspot.com/2012/10/pro-what.html) pro bono is actually the legal World’s way of saying ‘without charge’.

Firstly, I have to say that I don’t court publicity and usually try to stay well below the radar.  However, I feel that in view of the fact I have an army of volunteers who assist with my pro bono work, I must raise my profile on this issue so as to raise their profile. I don’t intend to name all the volunteers who have helped me out over the years, and intact if I did, I would probably run out of pages, but those who have helped me know who they are and hopefully they know that I am eternally grateful for the assistance.

I have been described as a ‘one person pro bono unit’, and it is true that I do spend a great deal of time each work on my pro bono work, and that it varies from assisting those facing the death penalty in Florida, to waitresses and apprentices in Croydon who are not being paid the minimum wage, with migrants, juveniles in custody, human trafficking victims, and football fans in the middle.  Some of my pro bono case load is more ‘sexy’ than others, so I find I only have to mention death penalty and I am inundated with offers of help, whereas my  apprentice and waitresses who are not receiving the minimum wage do not seem to be such an interesting prospect for most volunteers.  However, it can be argued that this is the essence of pro bono work as it allows people to follow their passion, rather than the work they are being told they must do.  For many students and young lawyers, offering to work pro bono on a case means they get to be involved with a case which would otherwise not be offered to them.  It is great for experience, and personal development, and the clients benefit from another brain working on the case.  For those, like myself , who are a little longer in the tooth, it means we can pass on our experience to others, but there usually remains a challenge in most cases, something for us to get those longer teeth into.

So why do I do what I do? That’s a hard question to answer.  Clearly I don’t do it for the notoriety, and the fact I am often still sitting at my laptop at 3am means my pro bono caseload does not give me an easy life.  Probably the best answer is:  I do it, because I can.  Without question, all of my clients are grateful for the assistance, and for my part, it is the clients who inspire me to carry on.  These same clients tell me I am the first person to have visited them in prison for 10 years, or that they had intended to pull out of their employment tribunal case as they could not deal with the prospect of facing their harassing employer, or that they just need someone to tell them whether they do indeed have a legal complaint.

I am often asked how I manage to fit in all this work, and truth be told it is often more luck than judgment. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am totally dysfunctional, friends are now used to my turning up at their front door in the early hours of the morning and asking to sleep on their sofa, and borrow clean clothes for the next day.  I don’t own a car and am often found sleeping on train stations having missed my last train connection of the evening. The night shift corrections officers in the Miami Jails know me on first name terms due to the fact I am regularly still sitting in jail interview rooms with my clients at midnight.  Judges now seem to be used to me turning up for emergency hearings in the Crown Court wearing a wig and gown three sizes too big for me as it was the only one I was able to borrow in the robing room at short notice!

In essence I am everything a lawyer should not be!  When I first joined my current chambers, 1 Gray’s Inn Square,  I was nicknamed Erin Brokovich and the name seems to have stuck..but for those of you wondering..I don’t have legs like Julia Roberts, it is due to my attitude…I will leave you to your own thoughts on that one!

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About gurdena

Social Justice Lawyer, interested in all things contentious. Specialising in criminal law, and anything criminal justice related, also employment law. Door tenant at 1 Grays Inn Square chambers. Find out more at www.alisongurden.com

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