Proactively pro bono

Peta Sweet explains how pro bono delivers more than just the feel-good factor, developing a sense of ethical integrity in students and trainees right from the word go. Peta Sweet is director of the Solicitors Pro Bono Group.

The formation of the Solicitors Pro Bono Group (SPBG) in September of last year provides, for the first time in this country, a national focus and support structure for pro bono work undertaken by solicitors across England and Wales.

One of its key roles is to support those undertaking pro bono work and to provide tools to encourage a more co-ordinated and firm-wide approach, so that there is a shift away from the traditional ad hoc delivery of services. By doing so, the profession will be better equipped to affirm its commitment to access to justice and to match what is a growing unmet legal need as successive governments reduce access to legal aid.

As part of that role, the SPBG will encourage greater co-ordination, not just within firms, but also between and solicitors outside private practice, as well as across the profession and agencies with a key role to play – including the advice sector, voluntary sector, legal education institutions and the Bar.

Importantly, our role is also to encourage others – firms and individuals – to recognise the value of pro bono and the substantial benefits that can be gained, by individuals, firms and the profession as a whole.

Some would describe the SPBG's role as one of changing the culture of the profession, and in many ways that is inevitably part of our agenda. We are asking the profession to look again at its ethical obligations and role in the wider community.

Law students and trainee solicitors, as the future of the profession, play a pivotal role in the SPBG's success. It is encouraging that many have already indicated strong support for its aims and objectives. It also has support from some of the key legal education and training providers.

Pro bono is not however simply about altruism. There are tangible benefits to those individuals, firms and organisations that get involved, particularly in terms of the training and professional development potential. Anyone involved with and committed to pro bono will tell you that it makes for lawyers who have a broader vision, lawyers who are interested in their wider role and their ethical obligations and not simply the bottom line.

For students and for trainees, properly managed and supervised pro bono initiatives can offer unique responsibility. Pro bono also instils an ethical obligation from the start of a career in law.

With nearly 27 per cent of trainees now going into City firms, according to the latest Law Society statistics, such involvement has to be seen as significant for the future of the profession.

A number of firms already recognise the value of pro bono in training and professional development of lawyers at all levels and in the recruitment and retention of, in particular, younger lawyers. Others are beginning to do so.

Some of the largest firms have established pro bono initiatives, some of which specifically involve trainees, for example in staffing advice sessions through local advice agencies, some on secondment. Others are moving towards more managed approaches, for example through schemes where they take on pro bono cases as part of a panel, such as that set up by Liberty or through the Professional Firms Group of Business in the Community.

But you do not have to be a trainee in one of the largest firms to get involved. Trainees in legal aid practices will, as a matter of course, be involved in pro bono. There is tremendous potential for law students too. The advice scheme set up by Kent University – Kent Law Clinic – is an example to law schools throughout the country as are the numerous law school schemes which are well established in other countries.

What is needed is a creative response to growing need and the flexibility to work collectively within firms, as a profession and with others – for example smaller firms working together or with a local advice agency in providing advice to small claims litigants at the local county court.

Ultimately, our success is entirely dependent on the profession – those students and trainees who are the future of the profession have a pivotal role to play in that success.