A guide to student pro bono
Pro bono work – free assistance for those who can’t get legal aid – is great experience for students. Beyond demonstrating commitment to the legal industry on your CV, it offers networking opportunities, exposure to new practice areas, enhanced legal and transferrable skills, and the chance to make a real impact in the community. Knowing where to start might seem overwhelming, but this guide will break it down into something manageable.
Career path coordination
As you’re giving up your spare time, you’ll want to ensure that any pro bono work you do is beneficial to your employment prospects. Think carefully about what area of law you want to work in: maybe you’ve studied a module that inspired you to explore that practice area in more depth, or perhaps you’d rather try your hand at something completely new – either way, narrowing down your search makes it easier.
There are also some pro bono programmes that can offer you a variety if you aren’t yet sure about the specialism to pursue, or you would rather work on a range of topics.
Another career path factor to consider is whether you want to become a solicitor or barrister. A strong link between the pro bono scheme and your chosen career route will really help your future applications stand out.
For instance, budding solicitors could get more value from experience with a closer working relationship with clients, boosting skills like expectation management, responding to client needs and handling challenging situations/people.
On the other hand, aspiring barristers could benefit from engaging in advocacy, getting vital experience in representing clients.
Whether there are a handful of pro bono projects you would like to try out or you feel especially enthusiastic about one particular initiative, remember that balance is key.
Recruiters will find your ability to juggle multiple responsibilities – like pro bono work with your studies and part-time job – more impressive if you can do them all well.
Biting off more than you can chew could detrimentally affect outcomes from an employer’s perspective and, more importantly, could lead to serious burnout on a personal level. Volunteering little and often is the more sensible route here, so don’t feel pressured to spend every waking moment enhancing your CV.
Sources of pro bono experience
While far from being an exhaustive list of providers, checking out these organisations should kick start your pro bono experience search.
University careers department
The majority of universities and law schools have developed their own pro bono schemes, which often reflect the broad interests of its students. Here you should be able to find both popular and obscure fields of the law and – due to the department’s awareness of university course demands – the time commitments expected from students will be more reasonable.
Previously known as the Citizens Advice Bureau, this network seeks volunteers to supply both emotional and practical support for witnesses involved in court cases, as well as helpers to work on specific projects. This is an excellent source of pro bono for students looking for experience with various legal issues, but it’s worth remembering they generally require a minimum of one day a week volunteering plus a commitment to training sessions.
Free Representation Unit (FRU)
The FRU offers legal representation for those in employment and social security tribunals, and sometimes even appeals. It’s a serious undertaking – volunteers dedicate a substantial amount of time to the role because of its training and case preparation – but it does allow students to advocate in an actual tribunal hearing, so is especially useful for aspiring barristers.
This project sees volunteers working with a range of clients – from prisons to homeless shelters and to schools – on legal workshops tailored to each specific audience; for example talking to a secondary school class about their legal rights and responsibilities as citizens in a democratic society.
This is a great opportunity for those wanting to explore a wide range of legal topics. Most universities run their own Street Law ventures, making them relatively easy to find as well as understanding about time pressures related to study.
The principal pro bono charity in England and Wales works with universities and law schools to establish and maintain legal advice clinics for those in need. After an induction session and some training – which reviews GDPR, client confidentiality, commercial awareness and working with vulnerable clients – students’ work will be monitored. Again, since it’s linked to the university, they should be understanding about your other time commitments.