The importance of pro bono work for first-year law students in the UK
Pro bono work represents most students’ first taste of practical law: giving volunteers unique opportunities to gain insights into real legal cases and develop their own employability skills, while also helping those who cannot afford paid representation.
What is pro bono?
For those who haven’t heard of pro bono or are unsure about what forms it can take: it's voluntary legal service, usually in service of individuals, or less frequently companies, who cannot afford any other type of representation. Pro bono is Latin for ‘for the public good.’
There is a huge variety in the type of pro bono work that you can get involved in. Examples may include: representing a tenant in a dispute with their landlord, working on the criminal defence of an individual reliant upon legal aid, or helping a non-profit with corporate requirements like articles of incorporation.
Enhancing your CV
As a first-year law student, the notorious training contract applications cycle is just around the corner. The range of work that exists within pro bono gives you the opportunity to explore what parts of the legal field you find engaging outside of the classroom, so when you do come to apply somewhere, you can be sure the firm’s work matches your interests.
Law firms take pro bono work very seriously, with many firms building it into their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) policies. Firms such as Travers Smith even have a dedicated pro bono partner.
Given how much emphasis firms themselves place upon pro bono work, it represents a fantastic opportunity for first-year law students to kick-start their legal CV and gain impressive experience to highlight in applications.
Developing practical skills
Law degrees are famously theoretical, and, while having an academic edge will prove important in your later career, law firms are looking for a range of interpersonal and applied skills that need to be gained outside of a classroom.
Pro bono work allows you to have direct contact with clients, demonstrate responsibility, and generally acclimatise to how the law is conducted practically. As a first year, take the opportunity to develop your skills and become more comfortable in a legal setting.
Remember, when it comes to law firm recruitment, the assessment doesn’t stop with an application, with many firms having in-tray and written exercises to test your practical skills. The best way to prepare for these assessments is through genuine legal experience, which will come through in your writing. Pro bono is a great way to get that experience.
Doing some good
There are certainly many reasons why volunteering in a pro bono clinic as a first year is in your own interests. However, remember that it is also a fantastic chance to help others.
Pro bono services provide an invaluable lifeline to millions of people. The Citizens Advice Bureau alone estimated that in 2021-2, they helped 2.55 million individuals.
Pro bono allows individuals to give back to society in so many ways, whether they are working on cases involving homelessness, discrimination or asylum claims. First year, with its lighter workload, is the perfect opportunity to contribute.
How to find pro bono work
Pro bono work is a mainstay of legal courses in the UK. While not typically being built into the course, most universities will have an associated legal clinic.
If your university doesn’t have a legal clinic, the Citizens Advice Bureau is a great introduction to pro bono work, where you will see a breadth of cases.
If you have a particular social issue in mind or already know which type of law you want to gain more experience in, then the National Pro Bono Centre is an excellent resource for locating more specific opportunities.
Volunteering your time to do pro bono work is a fantastic way to demonstrate your interest in the law, cultivate that interest with hands-on experience that can direct your future career choices, and develop the skills needed of a mature legal professional.
Law firms recognise the benefits of pro bono work for shaping young lawyers and contributing to local communities. Should you be presented with in-tray tasks or an interview question about your legal experience, you may just find that your pro bono work gave as much to you as you gave to it.
First Year Opportunities