The benefits of a pro bono secondment

Most leading lawyers obviously want to work with great clients doing first-class commercial work. Yet increasingly lawyers and trainees are interested in opportunities that take them beyond the day-to-day work of their career with their firm.

Many study law because they have a strong interest in justice, including social justice. Many also have a strong sense of community and want to be able to give something back. They want the opportunity to do high-quality commercial work and to be able to follow their wider interests. It is crucial that law firms provide this opportunity.

As a result, it is becoming an increasingly popular option for trainees to undertake a pro bono secondment as part of their litigation seat, in addition to a stint in a city such as Hong Kong, Paris or New York. This is a rewarding experience for trainees, but also assists with a law firm’s community commitments.

Clifford Chance has, for example, formed an alliance with a number of organisations, including UK human rights organisation Liberty, where the firm has four secondees each year, and Law For All (LFA), a not-for-profit law firm in West London that advises exclusively on welfare law matters, where 16 trainees are placed.

The firm aims to make clear to trainees contemplating a secondment to somewhere such as LFA that this will be a huge contrast from life at the firm and will give them the chance to be challenged and stretched in a very different way. We find that most trainees really appreciate the challenge and the opportunities that these secondments give them.

Secondees can expect to conduct client meetings and be representatives in court. At Liberty, they can expect to assist in the preparation of cases for the High Court, the Court of Appeal or the European Court of Human Rights’ hearings. At LFA they will be representing disadvantaged people in a variety of cases that are crucial to people’s finances or general welfare.

The absence of the kind of business support that a large commercial firm provides adds to the steep learning curve for the trainees, who must do their own photocopying, bundle preparation and typing. Those who cannot meet the new challenges will not succeed – LFA has high standards and expectations of its secondees.

These secondments provide real benefits on all sides. Secondees spend sufficient time working alongside LFA’s staff to make a real contribution to the public interest. The presence of the law firm secondees enables LFA to extend its services to ensure that disadvantaged clients can still be assisted. For a variety of reasons, many of the most vulnerable clients do not qualify for legal aid.

Secondees acquire front-line litigation experience of the kind that used to be commonplace for junior commercial lawyers, but which is now less usual in large City firms.

LFA gains a critical and reliable additional resource, which it is immediately able to deploy. Just as important, it can plan for the future knowing that this resource is available to it. Law firms’ work with these organisations makes a huge difference to them, their clients and to the trainees there.

Clients also increasingly require evidence of a firm’s positive contribution to the community. Therefore, the firm’s lawyers need to recognise that community and pro bono programmes are not just platitudes, but a commitment over many years with beneficial, tangible results.

All of Clifford Chance’s pro bono programmes are voluntary – we think that this is crucial to their continued popularity and explains why they are generally oversubscribed. The amount of hours spent on pro bono activities increased last year to around 30,600 hours in London, and around 54 per cent of lawyers, including partners and paralegals, were involved in pro bono work.

A pro bono secondment is an experience that should be considered by anyone seeking to develop wider skills, which will make volunteers more well-rounded lawyers and enable them to give something back.