Pro bono: elementary to education

Pro bono is viewed variously by lawyers as an altruistic sacrifice, good PR, or as building stronger links between the legal profession and the community. It is viewed by the Government as complementary to an efficient and fair system of justice, the same way as it views the relationship between government expenditure and lottery funding.

But what of the role of pro bono in the education and training of young (and old) lawyers? There are still some in the legal profession who subscribe to Oscar Wilde's view that "nothing that is worth knowing can be taught". That is patently untrue. Professional education and training in general, and pro bono programmes in particular, can greatly enhance the professional development of lawyers at all levels.

The foundation skills of legal practice are the ability to solve clients' problems against the framework of the law, to communicate effectively with client and opponent and to manage workload effectively. Pro bono work provides unique opportunities to develop these and other skills.

It is crucial, however, that pro bono work is not delivered at the expense of the client and it takes place in a supervised environment.

So where do law schools fit into this picture? In the US, the pro bono movement was given impetus by the development of clinical legal education programmes and pro bono activity within American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law schools. Indeed, the ABA went out of its way to promote such activity in the approval and accreditation process. The latest edition of the relevant standards states that a "law school shall offer live client or other real life practice experiences". Imagine the reaction if – as the Solicitors Pro Bono Group has lobbied – UK law schools faced the same requirement.

UK clinical experience has been limited. Nottingham Trent University's predecessor pioneered the sandwich law degree and there have been clinical experiments, with varying degrees of success, at a number of universities, including Kent, Warwick, Northumbria and Sheffield Hallam. The failure of the movement to take hold is not entirely the fault of law schools. It is a function of the funding of law schools and the separation of the academic and vocational stage.

The fact is that law schools derive the bulk of their funding from the Research Assessment Exercise. There are, therefore, far greater rewards in writing about and researching pro bono activity than in delivering it to student lawyers. The separation of the academic and vocational stages has also undoubtedly contributed to the problem. While the big Legal Practice Course (LPC) providers have embraced "learning by doing" techniques, they have not, on the whole, promoted clinical/pro bono activity.

In addition, the profession's regulators have largely withdrawn from any attempt to influence undergraduate legal education.

What of the future? It has always been difficult to bring about change in legal education because law schools have overvalued their academic freedom and have not always been masters of their own destiny. They have been used by vice-chancellors as "cash cows" to attract state-funded, high-quality students. Such an environment provides little scope for innovatory clinical/pro bono programmes.

On the other hand, given the size, positioning and mission of the College of Law, we consider that we have a clear responsibility to provide support for the pro bono movement.

Our strategy is clear. The college will provide increased opportunities for its students to engage in clinical/pro bono work. Supported and advised by the Solicitors Pro Bono Group, we have already established one London clinic and a second is planned. In addition, the Legal Aid Board has accredited the college's welfare elective on the LPC.