National Pro Bono Week 2016—facilitating pro bono work

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Civil society organisations are often well-placed to match local needs with the resources available and the delivery of pro bono is no exception. As part of National Pro Bono Week 2016, Nimrod Ben Cnaan of the Law Centres Network (LCN) explains how law centre staff take an active role in managing the time of pro bono lawyers and help to adopt models of best practice that are slowly taking shape on an international level.

Volunteer time managed by specifically trained professional staff can, experience suggests, offer incisive legal interventions.

What is the first step by which law centres facilitate legal volunteers in providing pro bono assistance?

Let me take your questions from a law centres perspective, which differs from the perspective of solicitors in private practice or the self-employed Bar.

Law Centres employ salaried solicitors, comprising most of their staff teams, to deliver legal advice. Our engagement with legal volunteers, that is, lawyers doing pro bono work, is in two primary ways. First, law centres refer clients to a pro bono lawyer if they can’t help them (for a variety of reasons, such as no funding, no expertise in-house, or no capacity to take on new cases at the time) but the pro bono lawyer can. This is occasional and arrangements vary from law centre to law centre and from time to time. To help facilitate this, two main pro bono ‘clearing houses’ exist to match the cases of people in need with lawyers available to help—Law Works for solicitors and the Bar Pro Bono Unit for barristers.

What other processes are used to assist pro bono work?

In addition to this, we work with individual lawyers and with firms to offer routine pro bono advice clinics. These regular weekly services help the Law Centre to help more people over longer hours and with a wide range of problems. Traditionally, this has been done on a drop-in basis, and through its triage processes the pro bono clinic can identify cases which can be taken in-house by the Law Centre’s own solicitors, who are social welfare law specialists. Whereas pro bono volunteers normally come from other areas of practice and need to be inducted and supervised by the Law Centre’s supervising solicitor.

What changes have you seen in the nature of pro bono work?

In recent years we have been seeing pro bono practice in England develop qualitatively, through the development of ‘secondary specialisations’—this process enables pro bono lawyers to manage a client’s case from end to end, rather than handing it over to a Law Centre lawyer when it gets too large to manage on a limited voluntary basis. For Law Centres, LCN has been working with partners like LawWorks and The Collaborative Plan (the latter a blueprint, created through a collective that aims to improve UK pro bono service) on targeting pro bono clinics at specific types of common problems—unpaid wages, withheld tenancy deposits etc.

Are there any other practical interventions being made through the pro bono sector?

Another promising development is a UK pro bono manual, to be launched on National Pro Bono Week, which is modelled on international examples, the Australian version of which can be found here.

Going well beyond the professional ground rules, such as practicing within your competence, the manual will outline the steps that legal practices could take in order to develop a pro bono programme, and will include templates and sample documents and best practice guidance. This could encourage more legal practices to undertake pro bono in a directed way and with greater upfront understanding of what’s involved and what to consider.

A further welcome development we see is the growth in law student pro bono, which is becoming more ingrained in law schools’ clinical education programme. Like qualified lawyers, law students must be supervised by the Law Centre’s supervising solicitor. Even though they are not yet qualified, law students can undertake a range of paralegal work and have been doing some great work in Law Centres while simultaneously developing their problem solving and client skills.

Interviewed by Julian Sayarer. The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

Filed Under: Practice of Law

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