Frances Ridout, Director of Queen Mary Legal Advice Centre, says there is still further that we can go as self-employed or employed barristers to contribute to the pro bono landscape.

The UK has a long and proud history of undertaking voluntary work.  This is especially evident within the legal system.  Pro bono output from solicitors’ firms has skyrocketed in the last decade with many large city firms having dedicated lawyers specifically undertaking pro bono work.  Equally most medium or large firms have a dedicated pro bono manager.   The Bar itself has an impressive history with Advocate (formerly the Bar Pro Bono Unit) recently celebrating a wonderful landmark – its 25th anniversary.

Pro bono work has the obvious benefit to the individual/organisation who is helped.  These are inevitably people who could not otherwise afford legal advice or representation.  Sometimes even if advice is limited in scope or is perhaps negative legal advice – the power of listening and considering a case cannot be underestimated. 

Although pro bono work is an altruistic act, there are inevitably positive consequences to the person undertaking it.  On a macro level it is a key way to bind societies together, ensure the smooth running of the legal system and of course enhance the reputation of the profession, chambers and individual.  It is also worth acknowledging pro bono work as a key method for individual barristers to develop legal knowledge or use legal skills which might not otherwise be engaged in day-to-day work. 

This is particularly the case for those at the junior end of the profession or those in areas of law that do not have frequent oral advocacy opportunities.  Then of course there is what is often known as ‘the gift relationship’ – the power of altruism within systems and processes.  As a general rule, when we volunteer, we feel good, gain a sense of belonging and develop satisfaction within our lives.   

There is still further that we can go as self-employed or employed barristers to contribute to the pro bono landscape. There are ways that we can embed changes to our organisational structures to develop a ‘norm’ that pro bono is embedded within all professional lives at the Bar.  This will strengthen us as individuals and as a profession (remembering the Bar Core Duty 5 which stresses the importance of the public perception of the profession). 

Here are some key thoughts about how we can increase our engagement within the pro bono landscape:

  • Does your chambers have an expectation that prospective tenants should have actively engaged in pro bono work during their education and career? Pro bono contacts and networks can be as powerful to a tenant’s business and professional development capacity as other contacts.
  • Can you build in partnerships and/or opportunities that mean you can incorporate pro bono work into pupillage training programmes?  There are many organisations and charities (including Law Clinics within universities) who have partnership arrangements.  These are often relatively easy ways to build in volunteering opportunities for those in their training years.
  • Are prospective pupillage applications considered against a marking criteria that expects there to be engagement in pro bono activities while in education?  Pro bono opportunities are so widespread in universities and post graduate education institutions that it might well say something negative if a prospective pupil has not undertaken some form of pro bono work.   There is ample anecdotal evidence which suggest that those who undertake pro bono work during education are likely to undertake it throughout their professional lives as well.  For those who practice in a legal aid area or who are undertaking daily court based work, this simple change may be an effective way to promote and value pro bono work in a more achievable way than incorporating it into your practise.
  • Can the profession better ‘share’ skills, so that those who work in areas that tend not to have pro bono needs (e.g. commercial law etc.) are linked to barristers in social justice areas who can answer question and support their work to ensure it is competent.  Barristers are particularly good at undertaking cases in new and interesting areas or quasi areas within their practice.  Perhaps more so than the average solicitor.  How can we harness this tenacity and courage for pro bono cases. Sharing knowledge could provide a way for those with time or resources to partake pro bono work in meaningful areas of law and those with the relevant knowledge but less time to support others ‘while on the go’ e.g. a quick phone call while travelling to court.
  • Can we do more to ensure that support staff within chambers and offices see the value and importance of pro bono work for societal good, reputation enhancement and individual barrister’s professional development.  Particularly if they are clerking teams who are judged on the income of a chambers.  Can we as sets of chambers change what we value from our clerking team?  Perhaps through appraisal objectives or building a model which is the equivalent of a law firm allowing solicitors to bank billable hours for pro bono work. 

I hope Pro Bono Week 2023 provides an opportunity for reflection on not only on individual contribution, but on what structural changes can be made within organisations to promote the power of pro bono.

Frances Ridout is the Director of the Queen Mary Legal Advice Centre, and a Reader in Clinical Legal Education and Pro Bono in the Law School at Queen Mary University of London.  Frances is a practising barrister and co-author of Street Law: Theory and Practice.  Prior to working in academia, Frances was a self-employed barrister practising in crime from 15 New Bridge Street Chambers where she remains an Associate Tenant.  Frances currently co-hosts the Legal Education and Careers podcast ReImagine Law.