7 things I gained from pro bono

7 things I gained from pro bono

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Malvika Jaganmohan, LLM BPTC student at Nottingham Law School, studied her undergraduate Law degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). During her BPTC year, she was a Student Adviser within the Nottingham Law School Legal Advice Centre, a Free Representation Unit volunteer and Development Assistant for the NLS Legal Advice Centre’s Autism Law Service. She obtained pupillage during her BPTC year and is due to commence this in 2018. Here are 7 things she gained from the NLS Legal Advice Centre’s wealth of pro bono opportunities.

1. Giving back to the local community

Before I came to the Law School, I had a real interest in social justice, in power dynamics between the State and vulnerable people, and in structural discrimination and disadvantage which prevents certain groups of people from being able to access justice or engage with the legal system. Pro bono work offered me the opportunity to use my legal background to do something about this. Through my experience with the Centre, I have supported people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford financial help and represented clients for whom the tribunal process would have been utterly unmanageable. I can see a tangible benefit from the work that I do – a real improvement to the lives of my clients – and this gives me the motivation to carry on doing it.

2. Managing real clients and real cases

I started the BPTC with about 4 months to go before I went through the dreaded pupillage application process for the first time. I was very intimidated; how could I compete against experienced candidates when I was fresh out of my law degree? Pro bono work allowed me the opportunity to develop some of that experience: I could be preparing for a social security tribunal hearing one week, and drafting a complex piece of advice on business tenancies the next. I had clients that relied on me, conferences that I conducted alone and written legal submissions with my name at the bottom. Working within the Legal Advice Centre was an opportunity to produce pieces of work in a professional legal context for which I was entirely responsible and it was hugely gratifying. When I went into those daunting pupillage interviews, I was far more confident because I could demonstrate that I had experience of supporting my own clients and managing my own caseload.

3. Teamwork 

‘Teamwork’ is the bland buzzword that everyone dumps on their application form but I was taught the real value of it through my pro bono work. As a Student Adviser within the Centre, I worked with another student on many of my cases. We planned our interviews together, conducted the conferences together, did legal research together and wrote our final pieces of advice together. Given the hefty workloads on both of our courses, we often had to delegate tasks to the other when we were approaching a particularly busy period of the year. I relied on my partner a great deal when I was going through interviews and exams, and I was able to return the favour for her. The entire relationship was built on trust and I appreciated having someone to bounce ideas off who brought a different perspective to the legal problem.

4. Experience of different areas of law

During pupillage or a training contract, you might be handed a problem on an entirely unfamiliar area of law. You have to dive right in and land on your feet, showing the mental agility to adapt to different areas of law quickly and learn on the job. My experience with the Legal Advice Centre definitely allowed me to do this. My client matters ranged from intellectual property to family law and I was able to draw on the vast experience of my supervisors to do my research and draft my advice. This is a fantastic opportunity to sample lots of different areas of law to see what catches your interest and to hone your legal research skills.

5. Develop your legal skills

As a Bar Professional Training Course student, I sat a number of skills-based exams, such as Opinion Writing and Conference Skills. What better practice for a conference exam than conducting your own client conference? Why not revise for Opinion Writing by expressing your opinion on the law through a letter of advice? Working within the Legal Advice Centre allowed me to hone my legal skills, from interviewing clients to conducting legal research to drafting a piece of advice. This gave me a lot more confidence when exams came around and also allowed me to develop and practise skills which I can take into the workplace.

6. Taste of life as a lawyer

Doing pro bono is a great taste of life as a lawyer. While mini-pupillages and vacation schemes might give you a brief insight into life at a firm or at the Bar, you often won’t be given the responsibility and freedom that you could get while managing your own caseload. For me, it confirmed that yes, I did want to be a lawyer. I enjoyed navigating thorny points of law, weighing the pros and cons of different actions, acting as an advocate in a tribunal hearing and supporting clients through periods of real distress. Being a lawyer isn’t for everyone, so pro bono work can help you decide whether it might be for you. If you’ve already set your heart on becoming a lawyer, pro bono is fantastic practice for life within the legal profession.

7. Huge responsibility

I continue to be surprised by the degree of responsibility afforded to students within the Legal Advice Centre: students interview the clients, students carry out the legal research, students appear in tribunal hearings. While I had the most fantastic support from the Centre’s supervising solicitors, the staff is keen to encourage students to take some initiative. I was offered a short paid placement as a Development Assistant within the Centre’s Autism Law Service, which I then continued on a voluntary basis. I was given huge amounts of freedom to shape the short-term objectives and long-term vision of the Service. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to help create an initiative that could improve the lives of a sector of our community that is often overlooked by the legal system.

All in all, pro bono is what you make of it. If you want the odd CV-boosting case, so be it, but you’re losing out on the huge contribution you could make, as well as the skills and experience you could gain. The NLS Legal Advice Centre offers a wide breadth of pro bono opportunities for the Law School’s students and it would be a real missed opportunity not to get involved.

About the author

Malvika Jaganmohan is currently undertaking the Bar Professional Training Course at Nottingham Law School, having completed her Law degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She is due to commence pupillage at Coram Chambers in October 2018.

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