For The Greater Good - Future Lawyers and Pro Bono
A qualified UK solicitor and US attorney, Kara Irwin has been the Director of BPP Law School’s Pro Bono Centre since 2004. Here she looks at the role that future lawyers can play in providing legal services to the community.
As we approach the seventh annual National Pro Bono Week, starting 10th November 2008, we have a chance to celebrate the legal community’s efforts to help those unable to access or afford legal services. But it also allows us to consider the gaps that exist in public funding for legal aid provision and to look toward the future of the legal profession for solutions.
As the credit crunch hangs heavy over the UK economy, there is a commensurate increase in the proportion of the population seeking out free legal advice for matters relating to bankruptcy, housing and redundancy. Similarly, increasing crime levels emphasise the need for third party involvement in identifying disenfranchised members of the community and building their legal knowledge and understanding.
Since the launch of our Pro Bono Centre in 2004, BPP has continued to encourage students from all of our law courses to make pro bono work a significant part of their legal training and professional lives. In order to address the inequality inherent in our society's unmet legal needs, our Pro Bono Centres in Leeds, London and Manchester enhance access to justice by promoting and facilitating a range of free legal services.
The Centres operate a wide variety of pro bono projects supported by students and supervised by qualified lawyers, including a Legal Advice Clinic, Employment Law Telephone Advice Line, Environmental Law Group, Human Rights Unit, Intellectual Property Group, Legal Translation Service, Personal Support Unit and Streetlaw education programme.
For the young lawyers’ good
Working on pro bono projects, law students have the opportunity to put their legal knowledge and skills into practice, making theory learned in the classroom come to life. An understanding of the role of law in society and a first-hand perspective on access to justice issues through pro bono work extends law students’ education from a vocational to a professional level. Students also use their pro bono experiences as a basis for deciding on practice areas for their future careers and building contacts in those areas.
Students who have been involved with pro bono programmes often report introducing or developing a culture of pro bono activity in the firms they subsequently join. Firms value such contributions, recognising the importance of acting as responsible corporate citizens and distinguishing themselves with recruits, as well as contributing to the legal profession’s focus on ensuring access to justice for all.
At the cutting edge of law
Pro bono programmes often work at society’s margins, exposing students to some of law’s most topical issues. For example, BPP has pioneered Streetlaw projects to help children from deprived backgrounds understand and explore the legal implications of issues such as gang culture and knife and gun crime.
As part of BPP Streetlaw, our students deliver interactive sessions on relevant legal issues in a number of primary and secondary schools and youth centres in the UK. In London, the project focuses on at-risk youths aged 8-17 through centres such as Millwall Football Club and the Damilola Taylor Leisure Centre. The sessions focus on a wide range of topics, including ones that are taboo in most school settings, such as weapons, guns and gangs, non-fatal offences, immigration and racism, stop and search, and violent crimes.
By working to counteract the negative experiences that many young people have had with the law and its enforcement, and to promote legal rights and responsibilities, BPP’s Streetlaw volunteers increase children's understanding of the law, how it is made and enforced, and how it represents a balancing of often conflicting needs and priorities among different constituencies. The Streetlaw sessions also provide a forum for young people to make their views known and give young people a greater sense of responsible citizenship.
The future of pro bono
The legal profession has concentrated efforts over recent years on developing a profession-wide ethic and strategy with respect to the provision of pro bono legal services. This is evidenced not only by the number of organisations and institutions now focusing on pro bono, including the Attorney General's National Pro Bono Committee, the National Pro Bono Week Co-ordinating Committee, LawWorks, the Bar Pro Bono Unit and others, but, more relevantly, by the increased provision of pro bono legal services to the community.
The next focus is on the future of the legal profession – law students. Further development of pro bono programmes in law schools across England and Wales is crucial to instilling in future lawyers a sense of professional responsibility for assuring that all members of society have access to legal services. Through tapping into this evolving talent, we have the potential to develop a legal system that truly provides justice for all.
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