Law firms will look to students with pro bono experience because they want trainees who can hit the ground running, argues Jessica Austen
Many lawyers worry that new entrants to the profession lack the people skills, self-management and resilience needed in today’s law firms. They fear that students who are accustomed to banking A-grade exam results often can’t cope with failure and are ill-equipped to deal with clients, many of whom present with complex problems and require careful handling.
But the fact is that aspiring solicitors can gain those skills and experience if they do pro bono work. Unfortunately, students often have misconceptions about what pro bono work involves. They believe they can’t afford the time, or that they aren’t expert enough, or that it has nothing to do with the field of law they want to specialise in.
Understandable though these assumptions are, they are usually mistaken. What’s more students, especially those from non-traditional backgrounds, have more to offer than they may initially believe.
The point of pro bono work is to give those who cannot afford legal advice free access to it. Budding solicitors may know what pro bono work is but they may not know what it involves. At BPP University Law School, we have many different projects across the country open to volunteers – full details are available at our Pro Bono Centre – but volunteers do not need to be highly experienced. And although family, housing and employment law are most in demand, an intention to practise in one of those fields isn’t a requirement.
Any aspiring solicitor, regardless of their intended specialism, will benefit. Why? Because pro bono work allows students to gain hands-on experience of client-handling, presenting, networking and drafting that many other candidates will simply lack. And that will give them the edge in a highly competitive employment market.
Typical pro bono work could involve explaining to an ex-prisoner the implications of a criminal record, or manning a helpline, or giving a presentation in a school or a shelter, or advising (under supervision) a disgruntled employee or an evicted tenant of their rights. The more expert a student volunteer becomes the more responsibilities they can take on.
It doesn’t have to take up too much time – a few hours a month could be sufficient. But volunteers usually discover that the work is so compelling and rewarding that they try to do it weekly.
For those who lack confidence, particularly in advocacy or presenting, pro bono work offers the opportunity to gain experience in public speaking in environments that can sometimes be challenging but are always supported. Qualified lawyers are always on hand to offer guidance and non-judgmental feedback. No one forgets that you are giving up your time for the public good.
Pro bono work can also give a student his or her first opportunity to establish networks and relationships with law professionals that those better connected than themselves take for granted. Many leading lawyers – be they partners in City firms or High Court judges – continue to offer their services pro bono and are willing to advise new entrants into the profession.
But pro bono work isn’t just about acquiring legal skills or making connections. The law is essentially about people. It doesn’t matter if it’s about tax or commerce or family or employment law – it always revolves around people. And pro bono work teaches you above all how to handle all kinds of clients and cases in real world situations. It will teach you how to listen, how to be patient, how to communicate clearly and how to be resilient in the face of numerous setbacks. It will teach you empathy and give you insights into those whose worlds you may have never known.
It’s in these situations that aspiring solicitors from non-traditional backgrounds can have an advantage. If they come from an environment that has proved challenging, they may already have a connection to and understanding of the obstacles their clients face. In a graduate world awash with uniform grades and degrees that experience shouldn’t be discounted.
Given all that pro bono work offers – the hands-on legal experience, the chance to make connections and to stand out as a candidate, the opportunities to understand how the law really works at the sharp end – surely the question for aspiring solicitors isn’t how can you make the time to do it but how can you afford not to?
Jessica Austen is Joint Director of Pro Bono and CSR at BPP University Law School, some of whose projects have been shortlisted for this year’s LawWorks and Attorney General pro bono awards.
If students are interested in signing up to pro bono work or having an exploratory conversation, please contact the University’s Pro Bono Centre.