The Pros of Pro Bono by Catherine Martin

Former ‘Justice in Action’ student Catherine Martin writes about some of her realisations when undertaking our mediation project earlier this year.

Prior to embarking on my Open Justice mediation project, I was sceptical about lawyers’ motivations for carrying out pro bono work. I thought Pro bono lawyers fell into two categories: immigration and human rights lawyers with “a calling” and those that carried out pro bono just for career advancement. When preparing my first TMA, I wrote the following Open Justice Portfolio entry:

“Pro bono is a quid pro quo, where lawyers bail the government out of the access to justice crisis. In return, lawyers get something nice to put on their C.V.”

 Having now carried out a pro bono employment mediation for Open Justice, I can see that, to the lawyer, the value of pro bono runs deeper than just career advancement. I personally developed much greater self-awareness because of my pro bono work. As a result of practising active listening, I am now much less likely to butt in when someone else is speaking – a terrible habit I attribute to growing up in a large family!

Undoubtedly, my organisational skills have improved too. Aligning my calendar with those of my mediation partners, my employer, and my friends and family has resulted in me becoming an avid to-do-lister. I’ve seen increased productivity in my working life and even an improvement in my daily routine. Gone are the days of a lie-in.

I also had preconceptions about the remit of pro bono. Although legal aid has been removed for the majority of civil law cases, I still believed that pro bono’s real value lay in cases involving immigration and human rights, not in employment law.

Whilst helping me practise for my mediation, my mother (who is a lay judge in the Industrial Court) told me that employment tribunals used to be nicknamed “the working man’s court” as individuals would often represent themselves. However, these days, the process is much more formal, with legal submissions being called for by the judge at the end. The “working man’s court” is now inhabited by barristers. I began to see how valuable pro bono services could be in an employment situation, where a person’s livelihood was at stake.

“Increased formality of employment tribunals and the removal of legal aid means that pro bono legal services are vital to those who can’t afford representation. Particularly as the client may be worried about money due to being off work or being sacked.”

Pro bono mediation services can prevent employees from ever needing to go to an employment tribunal. Failing that, pro bono legal representation can help to even the playing field between employers and employees in an employment tribunal.

And so, I concede that I started my Open  Justice activities with misguided preconceptions surrounding pro bono. However, I can now attest that the value of pro bono lies not only in its ability to provide access to justice in a wide variety of circumstances (employment law, consumer advice, educating the public etc.,) but also, in the personal and legal development of the lawyer.