Having relished the academic experience of my OU LLB and with the finish line in sight, I was keen to get stuck into some practical ‘lawyering’. Justice in Action (W360) offered an array of exciting pro bono activities. Regrettably, practicalities limited my involvement to the online environment, but the innovative course allowed for this and I selected the Open Justice Mediation Project.
I embarked on W360 with a naive view. I had no idea of the political reliance on pro bono and no foresight regarding the profession’s obligations or the diversity of work involved.
W360 requires students to build a reflective portfolio, which at first felt indulgent and unnecessarily time-consuming. My first entry contrasted my budding legal letter-writing to model text. My critique stated; “too academic and detail-orientated”. The educational benefit of pro bono work was rapidly illustrated; W360 provided opportunities to practise legal research and writing and, within a few weeks, I felt I was doing a better job.
My learning experience blossomed during the mediation project, delivered by professional mediators via tutorials and simulated mediation sessions. Allocation into small student “firms” made our training come alive, nurturing our ability to guide negotiated solutions to conflict. I seized the opportunity to exchange ideas, practice techniques and enjoyed feedback from other students. Personal reflection was so much easier to apply following dynamic group discussion and rehearsed interactions.
In a useful tutorial, I expressed my frustration that, as nothing had “gone wrong” in our mediation to that point, I had little to reflect on. It dawned on me, during our discussion, that reflection requires “analysis of positive mechanisms as well as negative”. For the first time in my goal-orientated, self-deprecating journey towards professional identity, the penny dropped that one should build constructively on one’s successes as well as shortcomings. The idea could spur a new chapter in my professional development, but I realise I must now embark on its implementation!
My only disappointment in the mediation project was that it culminated in mediation with actors, not clients. I speculated this decision was taken because “mediation involves in-depth, confidential discussion of participants’ often emotional conflicts and live communication could not be regulated by a supervising tutor in real time”. I can imagine there was a more tangible feeling of having “done good” and of representing (and belonging to) the Open Justice team during other projects available on the course. I guess that, had I mediated for clients, I would have had the intrinsic satisfaction of making an altruistic contribution to the profession, which I now associate with pro bono work.
Pro bono work is pivotal for law students, helping us evolve from academics into practicians and sharpening our rudimentary toolkits, ready for our first forays into the profession. For me, it has facilitated professional development, reflection and identification of intellectual stars on my chart which, as a goal-orientated, self-critical individual, I struggle to thrive without.