Pro bono: are lawyers leading the way?

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Working at the National Pro Bono Centre I get to observe a large portion of the organised pro bono activities undertaken by members of the legal profession. One of the first things that struck me when I started working as a caseworker at LawWorks was the scale of the volunteer work done by lawyers. It seemed so impressive. But I was unwilling to accept that these lawyers did it just out of the goodness of their hearts. I thought, surely there’s something in it for them?

Well, it’s probably true that pro bono lawyers fall into two categories: those that do the exciting test cases, and those that take on the ‘mundane’ cases likely to interest only a likeminded pro bono lawyer who falls into the same category - even then it’s questionable. I imagine that part of the appeal for those doing the exciting cases lies in the fact that they get to explore a groundbreaking point of law, gain publicity, or expand their practice in some other way. However, only they can enjoy those benefits of pro bono. Because, after all, who will be interested in hearing about the way in which a lawyer helped a newly married couple with their boundary dispute, or spent the afternoon explaining the rules of limitation to someone who fails to understand why their case was decided without having the opportunity to present their evidence - sadly, these are the sorts of cases that come up time and time again.

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On a daily basis, all across the country, lawyers of varying levels of seniority take themselves away from their fee-paying work and apply their skills to solving these everyday problems. It’s this that I found so impressive. The individuals they are helping can’t get public funding, and may have tried (and failed) to get help under a conditional fee agreement. Our volunteer lawyers help people who, for one reason or another, have nowhere else to turn. Perhaps that’s it? It’s that feeling of truly making a difference that motivates these lawyers. Or, perhaps they do it for purely altruistic reasons? A few months into the job it occurred to me that perhaps these lawyers do it because volunteering for the public good is ingrained within the legal profession in a way that it isn’t within any other.

The National Pro Bono Centre is made up of a number of charities dedicated to supporting and encouraging legal volunteering. There is one organisation coordinating the pro bono services of solicitors, one for barristers, and one for legal executives. LawWorks works with over 100 advice clinics across the country where individuals can go and sit down with a lawyer for a short period and get some free advice. That’s not to mention all the Citizens Advice and the Law Centres which remain in existence because of the funds raised by the London Legal Support Trust and the Access to Justice Foundation. All of these projects involve volunteer lawyers in one way or another.

In fact, many of these projects are completely reliant on volunteer lawyers and wouldn’t exist without them. I’m not aware of any other profession that coordinates pro bono activities on such a large scale. So, the other professions are either not doing it, or they’re doing it and not talking about it.

It might be thought that the lack of an equivalent infrastructure for other professions means that if they wanted to incorporate volunteering into their practices, they would struggle. And I think I would agree. For example, an accountant wanting to undertake pro bono work would need first to find an individual or a charity in need - an advert in the classifieds would probably result in a flood of applications for assistance. The accountant wouldn’t be able to help them all and so he or she would need to find some way of screening the applications to see which are the most deserving - and to check whether the person is truly incapable of paying for the services they require.

It’s just not realistic to expect an individual accountant to go to such efforts just to find a suitable volunteer opportunity. So, is it then that we don’t hear about any other professions volunteering on such a large scale because there’s no organisation around to coordinate these activities? I don’t think it’s that simple - LawWorks was set up by lawyers who saw the need for coordination and a structured approach, and so decided to create a solution. So why hasn’t this happened within the other professions?

It’s also worth noting that LawWorks wasn’t set up only to make life easier for the lawyers. The wider social impact of organised pro bono work on a large scale cannot be underestimated, but a more immediate benefit comes from the fact that individuals have a place to which they can turn when looking for a pro bono lawyer. I tried recently to recruit an expert witness to work on one of our cases and it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

This gave me some insight into what it would be like for our applicants if LawWorks didn’t exist, and what it is like for those we cannot help. Firstly, I had to resort to cold calling as there was no single organisation which brokered the pro bono services of experts. I undertook this task (confident in the knowledge that my time spent working in telesales as a teenager would stand me in good stead). In the end I found someone - which was wonderful. But, this was after roughly 20 calls, 10 or so hang-ups, with answers such as ‘I couldn’t possibly justify that on commercial grounds - I run a business here Ms Moses’ and so on. I rather suspect that without my resilience as a former call centre operative I would not have succeeded. And English is my first language, I’m educated to university level, and I have regular phone and internet access - which can’t be said for many of the people who apply to LawWorks for assistance.

Who knows, perhaps somewhere there’s a small group of accountants or surveyors thinking about setting up that equivalent to LawWorks - and if there is then maybe one day they’ll be able to make similar claims to the one made here. But until then, perhaps it’s fair to say that lawyers are leading the way.

I will be using this blog to highlight the wide variety of pro bono work that lawyers are able to do through LawWorks, and the important results they achieve.

Lia Moses is a caseworker at LawWorks, a national charity working with solicitors to support, promote and encourage a commitment to pro bono across the profession

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