Stepping up – Law schools and pro bono

From running free legal advice clinics, to extensive public legal education (PLE) outreach projects in the community, law schools have been stepping up to make a bigger contribution to access to justice.

LawWorks have worked with law schools for many years to support and encourage pro bono, often partnering with the Clinical Legal Education Organisation (CLEO) to support a legal education agenda that engages actively and practically in social welfare law and justice issues. Our latest report shows that law schools are continuing to expand and develop their pro bono opportunities.

LawWorks have been periodically monitoring pro bono activity in law schools. Our first report in 2000 showed only around 40% of respondent law schools reported running clinics, but subsequent reports showed that this increased to over 90% of law schools reporting that they run clinics and other pro bono and volunteering projects, PLE programmes and student placements. Since our 2014 report, we have seen further cuts to legal aid and reforms to legal education, including the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). Law schools have also seen a growth of tech innovation in the ways that students learn and legal services are delivered.  More recently of course the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally impacted universities’ operations and student learning.

The Law School Pro Bono and Clinic Report 2020 contains findings of two online surveys on clinic activity and trends, one survey for law schools and one for law students. Of the 78 law schools that responded to the survey, all but one offered pro bono opportunities. 90% of respondents said the range of their pro bono work had increased. Over 3,000 students took part in pro bono programmes during the 2019/20 academic year.

Over 60% of respondents said they offered Streetlaw and external placements, 54% said they offered generalist advice, 36% specialist advice, 23% court and tribunal representation and a third ‘innocence’/miscarriage of justice projects. Over 80% of respondent law schools reported that students carried out interviewing, legal research, drafting advice to clients and signposting to other agencies. 58% also said form filling and around 40% that students undertook correspondence with other parties, provided face-to-face advice and drafted court documents. Law schools responded that 22% of students at their clinics undertook representation in courts and tribunals, from welfare rights to special educational needs and small claims. Employment, family, housing and consumer law were the main areas covered by law school clinics.

Much of this work is undertaken though partnerships with the wider legal and advice sector. Over 70% of respondent law schools said they partnered with private practice (for example, working with firms and with local law societies and networks), over 60% said they worked with Citizens Advice and 45% with Law Centres. Law school clinics operate as part of the wider ecosystem, including in relation to training and supervision. We asked law schools what training and induction was provided for students in clinics. 86% responded that sessions were provided by members of the law school’s staff, 57% said they were provided by legal practitioners external to the law school and 57% by other external partners, We then asked how work carried out in the clinics was supervised. All who responded said that the work was overseen by professionals: 81% said work was supervised by qualified solicitors and 15% by qualified barristers. Over 70% said work was supervised by members of the law school's academic staff, while 45% also said work was supervised by legal practitioners external to the law school.

Increasingly, students’ work in clinics also forms part of their assessments and learning outcomes, with over half of respondent law schools reporting that clinic work was assessed. Asked how law schools assessed performance, 86% of respondents said by ‘academic credit for a module’ 27% as part of a ‘reflective portfolio’ and 27% through a certificate of participation. We also found that 60% of students who responded to our survey said they should be getting academic credits for undertaking pro bono work. While 90% of respondent law schools ranked educational value and employability as very important, 71% also similarly ranked social justice. And when we asked in our survey of students ‘Why do you do pro bono volunteering?’, 88% said ‘helping others’.

The student survey results demonstrated real enthusiasm for clinics and 79% of respondents said they would like to see their law schools do some or more pro bono clinic work. The SQE, despite the disappointing absence of social welfare law from the curricula, may yet facilitate those opportunities. Under the new route, students will be required to complete a minimum of two years’ qualifying work experience (QWE) before they can qualify. Unlike the current training contract model, this can be completed at any point during the qualification process.  The type of work that qualifies as QWE can include placements including time spent as a paralegal or working in a law clinic, as well as working for a private practice law firm. This opens up the potential opportunity for law schools to provide a QWE component for working in clinics. Nearly half of the law schools responding to our survey said that they were adapting their clinic programmes in light of the SQE.

During the pandemic, law schools have adapted to provide remote services, but many were well placed to do this having already embraced a greater role for tech in education and training. These and other issues are explored in more detail in our report, including first-hand accounts from students about their pro bono experience.


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