Baker & McKenzie, Clifford Chance and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer are among the firms that have signed up to support a new scheme to train law centre volunteers.
The City firms are joined in funding Pro Bono Community, which is the brainchild of future 1 Essex Court pupil Oliver Hyams, currently at the European Commission, and Bakers trainee David Dowling, by Slaughter and May, Hogan Lovells and CMS Cameron McKenna.
Bates Wells & Braithwaite, meanwhile, has agreed to support the scheme by providing free legal advice.
Hyams said: “Pro Bono Community would not exist without the support of law firms and other pro bono organisations. We are indebted to them for the hours they have spent providing us with resources and guidance. Everyone is passionate about helping law centres to carry on doing what they already do so well.”
Dowling and Hyams have trawled the market for financial support for the project, Pro Bono Community (PBC), which they first put together in December after volunteering at law centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) as students (17 December 2012).
Hyams told The Lawyer: “We told them that we felt we’d save law centres time and money, and provide them with better volunteers, if we could create a standard recruitment process and training programme for Legal Centre volunteers.”
The pair want the support of firms to relieve the funding and psychological pressures law centre volunteers are under. A training course has been set up and will be officially launched in September with the aim of improving the voluntary experience for students while also improving the quality of advice they can give.
It comes as the Government implements huge cuts to the criminal legal aid budget, which many claim is having a devastating effect on the demands on Legal Centres. This move is being mooted as one way City lawyers can help mitigate the lasting impact the cuts will have.
“We explained that in the current context of cuts Legal Centres are more reliant than ever on volunteers but have even fewer available resources to recruit and train them. That’s where PBC can help,” added Hyams.
CMS said it had supported the move because it would benefit future trainees at the firm.
A spokesperson said: “When trainees who have worked with Pro Bono Community at the start their formal training contract, they will already be armed with a plethora of skills to help them really kick start their private practice career. At the same time they’ll have added value to law centres, perhaps even changed lives and become accustomed to giving back to the community.”
Dowling added: “Law centres do incredible work, and we want to be able to help make their job easier. The courses are being designed to reflect the practical skills and essential legal knowledge law centre volunteers require.
“We hope that Pro Bono Community can be rolled out nationally by the end of next year. We are in on-going discussions with a number of other firms and organisations, and we expect to be able to announce their support in the near future.”