Local heroes

The range of ways in which local authority lawyers can get involved in pro bono activities is wider than you think, says LawWorks’ Rebecca Hilsenrath.

It is November: shop windows now feature Christmas card displays and newspaper columns speculate on how the retailers will fare in a December which will end one of the hardest financial years in British history. Not many have thrived over the past twelve months, other than insolvency practitioners, and few in the legal profession particularly will be sorry to say goodbye to 2009 on 31 December. It has been a long, hard year with many redundancies and those remaining in employment are faced with significant work pressures and demoralized working environments.

Local authority lawyers work in-house and are insured only for legal advice and assistance provided to their client. Even if they were to overcome that obstacle to provide help to private clients, they would be faced with inevitable conflicts of interest.

The link between these two paragraphs, which might at first seem unconnected, is that they could appear to constitute, together, an insuperable range of good reasons why it is absurd in the current climate to ask local authority lawyers to work pro bono.  

In fact, of course, the absolute opposite is the case. Anyone can do pro bono, irrespective of status of employment, area of expertise, physical location or professional seniority. Moreover, the case for doing pro bono increases in hard times.

A changed landscape

Over the past decade, pro bono in England and Wales has transformed itself and, to some extent, has begun to transform the legal profession.

Pro bono recognises that many lawyers went into law to help people and allows them to access a sense of motivation, satisfaction and pride which is quite separate from (and may be elusive in connection with) the day job. Pro bono also nudges lawyers away from an increasing tendency towards over-specialisation, which is responsible for putting caution before broader professional development.

Advising pro bono clients provides lawyers with the chance to broaden their comfort zones and learn to advise across a wider range of areas. In that sense, it helps in developing skills which are key to the legal profession. Pro bono volunteers learn valuable skills, including how to communicate with people from a number of different backgrounds. Pro bono is a free approach to essential learning and development as well as an important factor in the morale and culture of legal teams.

A time of opportunity

The current economy is not a threat to pro bono but the opposite. Pro bono work increases access to justice for a rising tide of those in need of support in debt, housing and social welfare areas of law. It will result in a vastly more motivated profession that marshals its resources to help those hardest hit by the recession.

LawWorks is the operating name of the Solicitors Pro Bono Group. Established in 1997, we are a national charity providing brokerage, consultancy and clearinghouse services for lawyers providing legal advice and assistance without charge.  

We operate through a number of specific projects: we establish and support law clinics; we broker casework for individuals, charities and social enterprises; we run a free mediation service; we run legal training sessions for community groups and we work with law schools to develop pro bono programmes for students. All our members are entitled to free CPD training in relevant areas of social welfare law (which will soon be available over the internet) and recognition through our annual awards.  

Some of the opportunities we provide are face to face; some are on-line; some require the briefest of answers, others involve a longer commitment; but all can make a real and tangible difference to an individual or community group in need.

In all areas, we work as closely as possible in partnership with other organizations such as the Bar Pro Bono Unit and the ILEX Pro Bono Forum. We believe strongly in collaboration and coordination – it is these themes that have so reformed and strengthened the modern pro bono sector in England and Wales.

Among its 100+ members, LawWorks boasts an increasing number of in-house legal teams – including, of course, the Government Legal Service, and has recently begun conversations with the Crown Prosecution Service and Solicitors in Local Government.

Local government lawyers and pro bono

We believe we have a lot to offer solicitors in local government. We also believe they have an immensely important role to play in pro bono as a regional network of lawyers covering the whole of England and Wales.

LawWorks has developed a specialization in working with in-house groups. All the benefits of membership referred to above are available to these members, and we provide help and advice in setting up pro bono programmes which include suitable pro bono opportunities for in-house members.  

We can help with professional indemnity insurance and Law Society dispensation for in-house lawyers, and our links with the voluntary sector will help lawyers to assist people and organisations most in need.

In particular, local authority lawyers can use pro bono projects to develop teamwork skills and networking links not only with other in-house teams involved in pro bono but also with their own panel firms. Importantly, it will also help them to develop relationships and stakeholder networks in the communities they serve.

Lastly, it is a great mistake to dismiss pro bono for local authority lawyers as being prohibited on the grounds of conflict of interest. For a start, our Community Groups casework is non-contentious and ideal for in-house lawyers who are able to use their professional expertise to assist small charities and community groups in areas such as employment and landlord and tenant issues.   

Further, our Initial Electronic Advice (IEA) project provides anonymous advice where no client relationship is formed at all. IEA is an automated web-based system which provides short, initial legal advice in response to relatively straightforward questions.

Educational opportunities

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An important part of what we do does not involve direct legal advice at all, but comprises public legal education initiatives – raising awareness of legal rights and responsibilities before problems arise. This work stream should be of particular interest to local authority lawyers in helping to anticipate the legal problems which they would otherwise have to resolve in their localities.

Through our members, we provide practical advice talks on relevant areas of law (for example data protection, corporate structure and employment) for community groups.  We also provide factsheets with background legal information about a specific area of law which are then downloaded from our websites. Any member lawyers who have specific expertise in an area of use to community groups can draft a factsheet that charities can use as a reference guide. Indeed, our CPD training programme itself relies on volunteer trainers who are able to assist in areas such as debt and social welfare law, where local authority lawyers are often expert.

A recent LawWorks project, ALLIES (“a local lawyer in every school”) promotes and supports lawyers serving as school governors. This must include many local authority governors who, through our on-line forum, could be put in touch with others in that special interest group to swap best practice and offer mutual support and learning.

Further information on all of these options can be found at www.lawworks.org.uk.

Linking up with the SLG
LawWorks has recently developed contacts with the Solicitots in Local Government group (SLG). We are very keen to see this develop into more effective and joined up pro bono contributions from the local authority sector.

The current chair of SLG, Guy Goodman, is particularly keen to promote involvement with pro bono work, and comments: “Corporate Social Responsibility is an issue that has not really been on the local government lawyer radar, but it is time that we woke up to the fact that we can make a real positive contribution – particularly in the field of public legal education. It is time to get involved.”

However, it would be a mistake to believe that pro bono delivery by solicitors in local authorities is mere aspiration. It is already a reality.

Take Adrian Schwab of Buckinghamshire County Council, who really does go the extra mile for pro bono. Adrian coordinates a drop in clinic in Edmonton to which he drives every Wednesday from Aylesbury, where he lives and works. This constitutes a 110-mile round trip.

Following the closure of Enfield Law Centre, the Enfield Evening Advice Service was re-opened in February 2009 thanks to the support of OJN Solicitors. It operates at Enfield Foyer in Edmonton. Four advisers from local firms attend each clinic under Adrian’s supervision, seeing up to 20 clients each week on a drop-in basis.

The clinic covers most areas of law, with a focus on housing, welfare benefits, employment, small claims, immigration and family. As well as providing initial advice, volunteers write follow-up letters and provide a list of referral specialists.

Adrian says the only problem is the number of clients they are faced with. Because the clinic is located in Enfield, there is a large volume of unmet legal need and no question that the clinic is making a real difference. “I believe that Enfield Advice Service is about helping and supporting the most vulnerable members of our society, when they need it most,” Adrian adds.

We regard Adrian as a local hero (especially because, in addition to Enfield Advice Service, he is in the process of becoming a school governor through the ALLIES initiative). His commitment stands out but he is not the only one.  

The truth is that while the business case for pro bono is easily made, the moral case should not be overlooked, nor the contributions of people like Adrian which stand as testament to their belief in access to justice.  

I myself believe that many of our members act in that genuine belief. Winston Churchill said “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give”.  It is important – for those of us who make our living out of law – to remember that.

Happy New Year.  Let us hope we can all work together to make it a better one.

Rebecca Hilsenrath is chief executive of LawWorks

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