Why is it an advantage for law students to do pro bono ...

Why is it an advantage for law students to do pro bono work?

LAC 8

Written by Mathew Game, Supervising Solicitor in the Nottingham Law School Legal Advice Centre.

 

On the face of it this seems a fairly simple question to answer. Most students I have spoken to on this topic provide a fairly generic response. Either they want something to look good on their CV, or they want the experience of working with a qualified lawyer.

For those who wish to enhance their CV, undertaking pro bono work can help secure you a training contract, pupillage, or some further work experience. I have not been trained as a barrister and have no personal experience of what chambers would look for in a candidate. However, you will at least need to set out what you have learnt in some detail, regardless of the field you wish to go into. For those who simply wanted to gain experience you need to set out what the experience was like. What, if anything, have you learnt?

It surprises me how often students struggle to set out what skills they have learnt/observed when they do pro bono work. Of course, the experience will very much depend on the type of work you do, but at the Nottingham Law School Legal Advice Centre (‘LAC’) there are some core skills that all of our students will learn about. In my personal opinion these can fit into four tasks:

  1. Note taking;
  2. Carrying out legal research;
  3. Organising your file; and
  4. Conducting/observing a client meeting.

These skills may not sound like much. Some may view them as being somewhat basic. After all, what kind of person needs a lesson on how to make a note? However, in my experience, being able to competently perform these four tasks can help to make you a much better solicitor and may help preserve the career you have embarked upon.

A common mistake students make is to presume they are a finished product after academic studies. You are not. You are not expected to be. To many, you will be viewed as being at the beginning of your legal training. This makes an understanding of the basic skills important. The four skills I have listed above are not going to make you a complete lawyer. There are other basic skills that I have not mentioned here. These are simply the skills that run through all our pro bono projects. They are a good start point and provide valuable lessons to our pro bono students, which I have set out below.

Note taking

This is your written account of what has happened during a client meeting. It is your snap shot in time as to the problem and what was said. Most lawyers will provide advice in writing, but sometimes advice is provided during a meeting with the client only. Sometimes, a client may complain about something they allege was said during a meeting. It may be that a complaint does not emerge until several months/years after the alleged meeting takes place.

If you do not have a detailed note you are going to be in trouble. You may have no counter argument against the complaint being made. If you advised your client on a limitation period your note needs to reflect this. If it does not, you may have difficulties if the client claims you did not warn them.

If a colleague takes over a file from you they need your notes to be detailed, firstly to know what has been said, but also to understand what has not. A detailed note can be the difference between your firm being sued, or not. It is a very important skill to demonstrate you have.

Legal research

Being able to navigate primary and secondary sources is something you may not need to do that much of during your academic studies. Often enough, your lecture notes will set out the relevant statute/case law that you need to know. However, your lecture notes only cover a small area of law. Client queries cannot always be answered so easily. They often cover different legal issues, some of which you will not have studied previously.

Being able to use legal resources, such a Practical Law, is an important skill. If your research is wrong the implications can be quite severe. You do not want to be the person who provided negligent advice, simply because you did not research the query sufficiently.

Discussing how you carried out decent legal research, may assist you at an interview. Being able to carry out good research will also help you during your academic studies, as it will likely lead to a better understanding of the legal position. Good lawyers do not always know the answer to a legal question, but they tend to know how to find the answer.

File organisation

Again, this is a skill that may feel somewhat underwhelming. Cases are not won by having a neat file, are they?

An organised file is important. It allows you to quickly understand what advice you have previously provided to a client. It also allows any colleague to do this if you are absent from work. It is easy to remember the advice if you have just one client. Most junior solicitors at a high street firm will have a caseload of anything between 20 – 40 small cases. At larger firms you may share a client file with more senior staff. They will need to know what you have advised on. If you have not kept the file organised and up to date you are going to hear about it.

Client meetings

This is a skill that you are mainly going to learn after your academic studies. I found that it took some time for me to be comfortable in a meeting with a client. The advantage of experiencing client meetings during your studies extend beyond being more relaxed, but it helps. One of the key take away points should be that you do not need to give advice there and then. In fact, you should not give advice unless you know it to be correct.

Different lawyers will conduct client meetings in their own way, but there are good lessons to be learnt from how they go about such a meeting. Here at the LAC we let our students carry out ‘fact gathering’ meetings, where no advice is provided, without a lawyer being present. The benefit is that you carry out a number of ‘soft skills’ that academic studies cannot teach, in an environment where you cannot provide advice. Being able to hold off giving advice, until you have carried out proper research and spoken to a more senior colleague is important. No trainer wants to have a junior staff member give advice ‘off the cuff’ as that can be dangerous. Pro bono can teach you to hold off giving legal advice, until it has been approved by the supervising lawyer. It can teach you to be cautious, which is not a bad thing.

Conclusion

Pro bono can help you to stand out from other candidates during an interview, but it is of most use if you can discuss what it is you have learnt in some detail. Sometimes, the lesson you are being taught will not be immediately apparent. There is value in most of the tasks you will do at the LAC, but it is not always going to be apparent what the benefit is. If in doubt, ask your supervisor. There is no such thing as a daft question, so don’t be afraid to ask. It would be a shame for a student to do pro bono work and not realise the full benefit of what they have learnt, or what they can already offer to potential employers.

Pro bono does provide students with an advantage, both in academic studies and in the search for work. However, it is only of use in the job market if you can set out why it has benefited you. If you have not really thought about what the benefit was then you are unlikely to impress potential employers when you discuss your pro bono work at interview.

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