Have you ever wondered how a lawyer who practises in, say, commercial law would ever be able to help an individual with the sorts of legal issues encountered by someone with sufficiently limited means to qualify for pro bono assistance?
At LawWorks we do, in fact, see a good number of small-scale commercial agreements gone wrong: A agrees verbally to invest life savings in B’s business, B subsequently denies the whole thing. A now has no savings, can’t get a job, can’t keep up with the mortgage repayments and loses his or her home.
Commercial lawyers wanting to do pro bono work could probably help with one of those cases. But, these sorts of cases certainly do not make up the bulk of our work. And it is interesting to note that we have more commercial lawyers willing to do pro bono than we have commercial cases in need of pro bono assistance. Perhaps this is because commercial firms tend to stay away from publicly funded work and so can afford to turn their attention to pro bono? Whatever the reason, from our perspective, it would be a shame to let this valuable resource go to waste.
Most of our cases involve specialist areas like welfare benefits and housing law. Surely there is a way for those commercial lawyers to get involved with these cases? Of course it could be argued that if you wouldn’t take on a case for a fee when it is outside your area of expertise, surely you ought not to do so when you are doing the work pro bono. But what if you could receive training in the relevant area and expand your ‘area of expertise’.
If a lawyer can get their head around a complex merger involving several parties, or a difficult contractual dispute, surely they will be able to look at the relevant housing legislation to see if the landlord has met its obligations before evicting the tenant? That’s not to say that housing law is straightforward - I don’t doubt that a housing lawyer could deal with the complex merger if he or she wanted to - it’s just that the unmet need is not in the field of commercial law so there is no need look at ways of increasing the expertise in this area. We think that training our commercial members to practise in the field of social welfare law is one way of meeting the unmet need there.
LawWorks runs training semesters in the spring and in the autumn. The sessions are delivered by experts in the various fields of social welfare law and they take place on weekday evenings at the offices of one of our member firms. The sessions are designed to give lawyers without expertise in a particular area of social welfare law an understanding of the basic principles and a knowledge of the relevant texts in that field.
The idea is that after the session the lawyer will be able to help with basic problems in that area and, for the more complex ones, they will know where to go to look it up. This passing on of expertise has allowed many commercial lawyers to carry out pro bono work outside their ‘area of expertise’ where they would otherwise have been unable.
This, in turn, has helped to meet some of the unmet need in the fields of housing, employment, and other areas of social welfare law.
I appreciate that this is not ideal. Ideally, we would have a sufficient number of specialist social welfare lawyers who are paid by the state. But, the sad fact is that we don’t. So, what is the alternative? Leave individuals to do it themselves? This way lawyers can help some of the most vulnerable people in society. Yes, those people might be best served by a specialist in social welfare law, but surely they will be much better off with a commercial lawyer who has been trained in the relevant field than with no lawyer at all.
For those who question why it should be the responsibility of the lawyers to pick up the slack, I would say that, as well as the social benefits, all pro bono projects represent some commercial benefit to lawyers and to their firms. This project - with its potential for enhancing the communication and relationship-building skills of its participants - is no exception. Surely one can’t help but learn a thing or two about effective communication when dealing with a highly distressed individual about to lose their home, for example.
So, if you can’t do pro bono work because you don’t know the relevant law, there is a place you can go to learn…
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