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"She was a single mother who got herself into debt because she had to give up work following the collapse of her marriage," relates Stephen Llewellyn, special counsel at US firm Faegre & Benson's London office. "Added to this, her former husband had tried to abduct their son to another country."
The lady in question is not a typical Faegre client and the Hackney Community Law Centre Legal Clinic in East London, where Llewellyn helps out, is not a typical pro bono project. "My client succeeded in a court action against her ex-husband in relation to their divorce and custody of the child, and sought advice from us to protect her position against her creditors," says Llewellyn.
The Solicitors Pro Bono Group approached Faegre last year to help the Law Centre, which was set up in 1976 to provide legal services to the most deprived parts of the capital.
"We agreed," says Robert Bond, head of IP at the firm's London office and partner in charge of the project. "But rather than having our lawyers going out and giving advice, we wanted to do something more creative."
The firm joined forces to provide a pro bono service with BPP Law School. "The idea was that we link up with the college and the students be the front line of advice and that we sit behind them and act as mentors," he says. The firm claims that its pro bono hours have doubled between 2003 and 2004 and lawyer participation rates jumped from 53 per cent to 81 per cent in the same period in its London office.
Bond points out that Hackney is described as the fourth most impoverished borough in the UK, with high crime rates and "correspondingly high needs for social services, mental health services, and legal representation for individuals on poverty law-related issues". The lawyers typically provide legal representation to community groups and individuals on matters such as housing, employment, discrimination and asylum and immigration.
Over a series of meetings last year, Faegre partners developed a set of protocols for the operation of this new-style pro bono clinic and last October a team of 10 lawyers began staffing the clinic on a weekly basis, including a team from fellow US firm Debevoise & Plimpton. Clients are seen by appointment only and they are pre-screened for conflict of interest issues. "We travel out with students to Hackney, usually by cab, and we discuss how they're going to deal with the issues," says Bond. "In the client meeting the student conducts the interview, gathers the information and we step in if necessary."
Bond says the project works on a number of different levels. "There's a huge need for legal help and often we find people coming in who have never had anyone prepared to listen to them before," he says. "From the students' point of view, they might have done mock interviews before but this is the real thing and there could be a guy in front of them who breaks down because his son, who is autistic, is getting accused of using more gas then entitled." He says that, at the same time, it works for the Faegre lawyers because it enables them to "come outside of their comfort zone".