Pro Bono: Good practice

Pro bono is taking off like wildfire in law faculties across the UK. More universities than ever are now offering pro bono opportunities.

A recent survey conducted by LawWorks (formerly the Solicitors’ Pro Bono Group) and funded by DLA Piper revealed that 53 per cent of UK law schools now run pro bono projects. What is more, a further 12 per cent of schools are due to launch pro bono groups at the start of the 2007 academic year, while another 8 per cent said they are considering starting projects.

The Lawyer went to visit a couple of ambitious students and asked them about the trials and tribulations of launching their own law centres.

London’s Queen Mary University launched a legal advice centre – the first-ever undergraduate-run law centre in the capital – last October. Run with supervision from Field Fisher Waterhouse, Reed Smith and Richards Butler, the centre gives advice on housing law (although not housing benefits), employment law, consumer law and compensation. It has also offered tax law advice and “dabbles in torts”, says 38-year-old centre manager Julie Pinborough.

“We only advertise those four main areas, but if something such as tax comes up and we can get a lawyer to help, then we’ll probably do it anyway,” explains Pinborough.

Pinborough graduated from Queen Mary last year and was a founder member of the university’s pro bono group as an undergraduate. As she explains, the university was supportive of the project from the start.

“I approached the university, which said it was a good idea,” she says. “I then approached Clifford Chance, which also agreed.”

Pinborough received £500 worth of funding from the university, which was matched by the magic circle firm. The money paid for essential resources such as a fixed phone line and photocopiers. “Without it life would have been a lot more difficult,” she says.

Pinborough says her experience of launching the group was a relatively smooth one, but required research, planning and patience.

“What universities and law firms want to know when they get involved is that the group is going to continue and that students are committed,” she says. “You need to show that you’ve thought it through, are well organised and are confident that it can succeed.”

Despite being a rival to Queen Mary, the College of Law “was superb” when it came to giving help and advice, Pinborough says, as were Hertfordshire’s, Kent’s and Manchester’s law schools. “They’re all competitors,” she says, “but when it comes to pro bono, everyone wants to help.”

Business strategyBut setting up a legal advice centre was a very different challenge to setting up a pro bono group. “It requires a lot more resources,” Pinborough says. “You have to write a business plan, covering not just the law you want to do, but who else is involved, why you are doing it and so on. It took up most of my summer.”

Pinborough recommends starting a pro bono group before starting a law clinic. As well as providing practical experience and showing how solicitors work, a pro bono group can also be a good way of dipping your toe into the pro bono water.

“It’s also a good way of demonstrating students’ ability and commitment if you want to make an application to do a clinic later,” she adds.

Also, while a pro bono group can be supervised by students, Pinborough says that a full-time manager has been essential, adding that the clinics at Kent, Hertfordshire and Manchester each have more than one manager.

“You need someone who can communicate with the law firms and with the clients and students on a 24-hour basis,” she says. “It’s a very demanding role.”

The next stepFor those who are already involved in pro bono groups and are looking to take the next step and set up a clinic, Pinborough recommends that you investigate the legal experience that students are interested in getting, “as well as at the community benefits”.

The communities surrounding Queen Mary in East London’s Mile End are “quite poor”, Pinborough says, and “there are a lot of landlord-tenant problems”.

She adds: “There’s a large population that falls out of the legal aid boundary, but might not be able to afford a solicitor – a group in the middle that doesn’t have access to justice.”

The Community Legal Advice ServiceMaleeka Pokhari, 21, is a law student at The University of the West of England (UWE). She started a pro bono group in November 2006.

The idea is a year old, she says, and was modelled to a large extent on Kent Law Clinic. “I typed the words ‘law clinic’ into Google and it came up,” Pokhari explains.

Staffed by three students, The -Community Legal Advice Service provides advice on immigration, welfare and debt law, and offers an eight-hour session every second Wednesday, as well as a call-out service for the disabled. However, unlike the clinic at Queen Mary, the service is independent of the university. Instead it was set up with assistance from Abdul Malik, a councillor for the ward of Easton, Bristol.

“I worked with councillor Malik on his election campaign,” Pokhari says. “I knew that he had a huge amount of casework and the aim of the law clinic is to fill that gap. I thought that if we gave free legal help we could combat those problems.”

Like Pinborough, Pokhari approached the university about setting up the group and found it enthusiastic, but in her case excessively so. Councilor Malik explains: “The university took on the project, but then tried to take it over. They attempted to make it city-wide and applied for £30,000 of funding. But it was supposed to be a grass-roots thing and it wasn’t clear where any more funding would come from when that money ran out.”

A whirlwind of energy, Pokhari, as well as running the clinic and studying for her degree, is also a volunteer governor for the prison board and has a part-time job doing HR administration at her local DIY retailer B&Q. However, she says anyone can set up a pro bono group if they are dedicated.

“It can be hard to get over the hurdles in your way, and also, being young, I find a lot of people are less willing to trust you. But if you’re committed you can make it work and it’s a real benefit to the community.”

Three students, one solicitor, a photographer and a journalist are crammed into a small room at the back of Queen Mary School of Law. One of the students is telling the room about her experience of being hit by a motorbike in August this year.

“I was unconscious, and to keep me warm the police laid a blanket over my entire body,” she says. “My uncle was hysterical because he saw it and thought I was dead.” Listening to 20-year-old Christina’s account are Rhea Harrikissoon, also 20 and from Hackney, East London, and 19-year-old Emma McKie from Eastbourne, East Sussex.

Students at the law school, Harrikissoon and McKie are sharpening their skills as future solicitors by seeing what advice they can give Christina about how to pursue compensation. On this occasion McKie asks the questions, while Harrikissoon takes notes. Watching them both keenly is Nick Thorpe, an assistant solicitor at City firm Field Fisher Waterhouse.

“What injuries did you sustain?” McKie asks. “What response have you had from the police following the incident?” When the session is over the two students will spend the next week researching relevant case law before drafting a letter summarising their advice. When Thorpe has seen the letter and, if need be, suggested changes, a final draft will be sent to Christina.

“It’s comforting that, after all this time, I know my case is finally going to get moving,” Christina explains afterwards. “I know [Harrikissoon and McKie] are young, but I feel let down by the police and I can’t afford a solicitor, so it was a good alternative for me.” Harrikissoon and McKie are two of a total of 32 student advisers who put in time at the clinic, assisted by eight first-years doing reception and administrative work. The clinic runs two evenings a week with assistance from four external solicitors, and the student advisers work in pairs, taking it in turns to interview or write notes. “The interviewing can be quite nerve-wracking and you do sometimes think, ‘am I saying something really stupid?’,” McKie admits. “But you learn a lot.

“Also, you have a practising solicitor there to make sure you don’t miss anything, so you know that if you don’t get everything right there’s a safety net.” On this occasion Thorpe asks Christina a question that McKie has forgotten: whether Christina had been drinking on the night of the incident. The answer is that she had one drink, but it was important that this was established before any claim for compensation was submitted. As Harrikissoon explains, such interview sessions are great preparation for a future career. “It makes it easier to remember the law that you’ve been looking at,” she says, “and you pick up a lot of useful skills. For instance, you can only learn interview technique by doing it – you can’t pick it up from a textbook.”