Roll up! Roll up!
Well, actually, at this point in time, you may well be hunched over a desk, a pile of books, folders and case reports towering over you, highlighter bravely poised in your hand and four empty coffee cups not far away. In short, it is revision season. So rather think of this post as an IOU, a note to your future self in happier times.
This is a hearty recommendation which goes out to anyone doing the GDL next year… or the BPTC, or the LLM. Or those mysterious creatures – law undergraduate degrees – which as a GDL-er, I know absolutely nothing about. It would also be great for those taking a year out to do hearty-CV-building-type-activities.
Do me a favour – reach for a post it note – I know you have one. Or if not, look for the nearest stationery-clad student and borrow one. Make a note of this, and stick it in your diary for September – you won’t regret it, and it’ll only take a second.
I’d like you to make a note to seriously consider volunteering with Pro Bono Community in the academic year 2014 - 2015. It is an organisation in its fledgling year this year and I was one of their guinea pigs. Pro Bono Community provides training to people who are interested in volunteering in Law Centres. The training happens before you set foot in the Law Centre, the idea being that then you have a better idea of what you’ve let yourself in for, and might just be of a bit more use to people once you are there. I knew I’d like to volunteer in a Law Centre because I want to work in public law and planned to apply to Chambers with a strong record of human rights and civil liberties work.
The Pro Bono Community training happens in stages. Level 1 involves attending six weekly evening classes, of 90 minutes each, then doing a quick assessment in week 7. We were taught about the ethos and underlying philosophy of Law Centres and how this feeds into their day-to-day running. We learned that they were created in the 1960s to fill a gap in legal service provision, making sure that the most socially vulnerable, without money for legal fees, were able to receive high quality legal advice. Pro Bono Community also told that our first ‘stint’ of 10 days volunteering would be mainly triage (welcoming clients, taking brief instructions and directing them to the best person) so we were given some training into how best to do this.
After our training was complete we were allocated a Law Centre. I had a strong preference to work in Hackney, as in my previous life I was a teacher and that is where my teaching career began. Hackney Law Centre serves the same catchment area as a school in which I taught, so I was keen to return to the same community, this time with a legal rather than an educational hat on.
To complete our level 1 qualification, we did ten days prop bono work at our Law Centre. I volunteered on Mondays as this was my GDL non-contact day, but they’re very flexible and can fit in with you. My first week was as my training had led me to expect. I helped my supervisor by making telephone calls for her to tribunals, clients local councils and HMRC.
By week two, things changed. My supervisor asked me to complete some legal research for her into any possible links between insomnia and the criteria by which someone can claim a benefit called Employment and Support Allowance. Because my supervisor liked the work I did for her, she invited me to write written submissions for the client’s upcoming Tribunal. Then, when my supervisor was impressed with those submissions, she told me I could represent the client at their Tribunal. We were able to win that appeal, based largely on some very helpful case law towards which my supervisor had directed me. Since then, I have had the opportunity to represent three more Hackney Law Centre clients at Tribunals and have won each time.
But Pro Bono Community doesn't stop there – it encourages volunteers to become level 2 qualified, by attending an additional series of nine evening classes, lasting two hours each. This time we were being taught substantive law, which would enable us to be ‘caseworkers’ at the Law Centres, and in a position to give Welfare and Benefits legal advice. We had a written assessment to mark the end of level 2 last week, and we now await the results with crossed fingers. I will return to the Law Centre for 10 days over the summer after which time I will be the proud holder of a level 2 qualification.
By way of conclusion, here is a list of ways in which you would benefit from signing up for the programme next year:
By far the nicest thing was seeing law being practically applied, for real people’s benefit, rather than sitting on the page of a textbook.
I found out about it through an email from City Law School last October, so I’m sure there will be one again this October, but you can always keep an eye on their website too.
Many thanks to Imogen Proud, GDL student at City 2013-14 for this encouraging article - what are you waiting for?