Pro Bono Work – it doesn’t just benefit the client

Since advertising for pro bono legal researchers last week, I have been inundated with great applications from all types of students, lawyers, and other persons interested in the law.  It never ceases to amaze me how many people are prepared to give up their time to help others, and much of it goes unrecognized.

Last week I met with a group of students at Sheffield University who have been working tirelessly on cases through the Innocence Project.  Their knowledge of the cases was very impressive and was not obtained by spending only a few hours a week on the cases, they have clearly immersed themselves in these cases, and are very dedicated to the cases they have taken on.  It is fair to say that if these students were not working pro bono, it is highly unlikely they would be involved in these types of cases, firstly because there is not the public funding to cover the hours of research and tracking down of documents which these students have undertaken, but also as they have no track record of this type of work and so are not going to be selected by a lawyer who knows there is probably only one shot at an appeal.

The fact that they can put this work on their CV means that these students are going to be attractive in the future to lawyers who require some assistance with criminal appeals.  But it has also introduced them to the real world of the criminal practitioner, and made them realise that the law is one thing but practice is quite another.  For example, the fact a lawyer has not used material at trial which they feel should have been used, does not mean that this unused material is new evidence which justifies a reopening of the case by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Or that finding an expert who will criticize a forensic method is one thing, but finding one who is prepared to criticize a forensic scientist in court is entirely another.  Hence, for these students, the pro bono work has provided them with valuable experience which will assist them with their future careers, will look good on their cv and create a talking point at any interviews, and likely put them ahead of the game of the students who have the same academic background but have none of the practical experience.  In those terms it is impossible to put a monetary value on the work they are doing now, both for the clients and themselves.

Not everyone can get involved with an Innocence Project, however, there are so many other worthy causes which those with an interest in law can become involved in, for example volunteering with victim or witness support will provide invaluable access to victims when they are at their most vulnerable.  A volunteer may think that they have done nothing more than sat with the victim or witness for a couple of hours, outside court, talking about the X-Factor.  But for some victims and witnesses, that is the difference between them remaining at court to give their evidence or deciding that they cannot go through with it and walking out of the court building.  While the benefit for that individual victim or witness is clearly important, the experience of working with them is also invaluable for anyone who is going to be involved in cases in the future where there is victim or witness involvement, whether that be criminal, personal injury, etc.  In my experience you cannot be a good lawyer without an understanding of the clients and the victims, and you don’t get this understanding by holding clients and victims at a distance and not finding out what it is like for them .

For anyone interested in employment law or HR, becoming a trustee of a small local organisation is a way of seeing employment through the eyes of a small firm, where the HR manager is possibly also the office manager, receptionist and general all-rounder.  This gives a flavor of how difficult it can sometimes be for a small employer to stay on top of the employment laws and regulations, and how sometimes although the employer has not fully compiled with the law, there are ways of resolving the matter without resorting to an employment tribunal.  What may appear black and white in terms of compliance in an employment law assignment may be decidedly more grey in real life, and it is the real life examples that the pupillage or training contract interviewer wants to hear.

In reality, pro bono work that makes a difference takes real commitment, and interviewers are very aware of the students who involved themselves in pro bono work just before applying for a job, pupillage or a training contract.  Having a piece of pro bono work on your cv is one thing, being able to talk about it with enthusiasm and knowledge during an interview is another.  Those people who are looking to just add it to their cv are doing both themselves and those they have signed up to assist a disservice.  I am a member of an organisation which trains students to assist complainants in bringing cases in front of  a tribunal.  For those who then go on to take cases in the tribunal, they are providing something back to the organization and also those complainants which the organisation tries to help. But for many, they undertake the training and take on one case so that they can add it to their cv.  Employers are well aware of this practice and will question about it during interview, and if a student has indicated on their cv that they have undertaken cases when in reality they have done nothing more than the training or perhaps one case which was settled by negotiation, the future employer will see through this very quickly.  In effect it is misrepresentation on a cv, and is not something a future employer takes lightly.

The message is..if you want to get ahead of the game in law, pro bono work is a great way to do so, but only those with commitment need apply.

About gurdena

Social Justice Barrister, interested in all things contentious & anything criminal justice related including prisoners and complaints against the police. Specialising in criminal law - mainly sex, violence, and football fans (not necessarily all 3 at the same time!). Represents people facing death penalty in the USA. Associate Member at Drystone Chambers

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