Pro bono – for the public good

Family Law|Stowe Family Law|September 24th 2012

One of the legal profession’s many distinctive traditions is work undertaken ‘pro bono publico’ – for the public good, that is to say, free of charge or sometimes, for a reduced fee. Pro bono work is not unique to the legal profession by any means, but it is a well-established tradition amongst solicitors and lawyers. National Pro Bono Week is held each year to promote and celebrate the practice.

A number of national charities have been established to encourage lawyers to undertake pro bono work and to provide a point of contact for those seeking pro bono assistance –for example LawWorks and ProBonoUK.

So what’s in it for us? Why are solicitors and lawyers as keen as we seem to be offer our services at no charge to those who would otherwise be unable to afford them? That is not an easy question to answer, but it has something to do with social justice. Contrary to the expectations of some, those of us who enter the legal profession usually have a keen sense of justice and want to help the vulnerable and the disadvantaged. Pro bono work is one way for us to do this, especially given the government’s recent decision to effectively dismantle Legal Aid.

Pro bono work is also an excellent way for young and trainee lawyers to hone their skills and gain valuable experience. When recruiting, many law firms will look for pro bono work on young solicitors’ CVs. Such work suggests genuine dedication to the profession and really helps applicants to stand out from the crowd.

Attitudes to pro bono work are similar in other countries. In the US for example, the 400,000-strong American Bar Association encourages its members to devote at least 50 hours per year to pro bono projects. Meanwhile pro bono work has just been made obligatory for applicants to the New York State Bar. Current first and second year law students, as well as all applicants from January 2015 onwards, will have to complete 50 hours before they can qualify to practice in the state.

Announcing the condition, Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, said the move was the right one for the local legal profession. “On every level it makes sense, for new lawyers, for the profession as a whole, for the legal services providers, for the judges. So I am really upbeat about it.”

New York is the first state in the US to bring in such a measure, but I suspect others will follow suit. I share the judge’s enthusiasm for pro bono work. I myself undertook pro bono work while training and for several years afterwards too. It was very useful experience and I liked being able to do things to help people.

When I was a trainee and thereafter as a newly qualified assistant solicitor, I used to do pro bono work at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Chapeltown, following a request from my mum who used to work as a volunteer there. It is situated in one of the most deprived areas of Leeds.

One Tuesday night I bumped into a solicitor who was also doing some pro bono work there, building up his fledgling practice. He has never stopped doing his pro bono work, and I have followed suit.  I had already met him in court and had a case on against him. I secretly thought he was gorgeous. We got chatting, one thing led to another and five weeks later we were engaged!

That was thirty years ago and we’re still married. And thirty years on, our respective firms still have flourishing pro bono clinics.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. Steve says:

    All very admirable, but in these clinics is any advice ever given? In my experience the practioner listens and then just says I will take your case on at a reduced fee to the normal and no “free” advice is ever given……..Its a good ploy

  2. Sarah says:

    Hi Steve, thank you for posting. In any clinic there is a limit to the amount of advice that can be provided in what is often a 20 minute or 30 minute slot. However the focus of all pro bono clinics should be on providing assistance to the client and this can be advice of a legal or practical nature or both. A pro bono clinic client will need to be appraised of the likely legal costs if they wish to proceed and often it is one of their main concerns, especially in family law. However no solicitor should forget the purpose of a pro bono clinic which is to use their expertise to help people who need it.

  3. Jane 'Williams' Saunders says:

    How do I apply for free ‘pro bono’ advice?

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Dear Jane
      You ask the solicitors you want to help you. They aren’t bound to do so. We give 30minutes advice free of charge at our legal clinics in all our offices, every day.

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