Survey shows UK law students increasingly delivering pro bono advice to vulnerable people

  • A survey by LawWorks and the Clinical Legal Education Organisation (CLEO) has found that pro bono work in law schools is increasing. Nearly all responding law schools reported that they offer pro bono opportunities, a significant increase over twenty years of research.
  • There is clear growing demand for pro bono advice by law school students, with 90 per cent of law schools anticipating greater client uptake.
  • The report shows that the pandemic has been challenging for law school clinics, but it has accelerated the use of LegalTech and online platforms to respond to demand.
  • The findings come ahead of the roll out of significant shifts in legal education next year.

Pro bono work in law schools has continued to increase according to a survey by LawWorks and CLEO. The Law School Pro Bono and Clinic Report, is the latest in a series of reports recording the development of pro bono work in legal education institutions over the last twenty years.

According to the report, law schools are doing more pro bono work than ever. 93 per cent of student respondents said that the law school they attended carried out pro bono work, with 75 per cent of law schools  reporting that their institutions plan to extend existing pro bono work opportunities.

The 2020 findings show that pro bono has now become a mainstream part of legal education, as well as law schools’ wider community engagement. LawWorks’ first pro bono report in 2000 showed that only 41 per cent of respondent law schools reported they were offering or undertaking pro bono activity, compared with over 64 per cent in 2020.

The report unveiled a growing need for pro bono advice by law school students, supervised by qualified solicitors or barristers. 90 per cent of respondent law schools said that they anticipated seeing increased client demand for their law school's pro bono services, in the broader context of unmet need and the ongoing impacts of cuts to legal aid – a key message here is that student pro bono should not be considered a substitute for properly funded legal aid. The survey indicated that employment, family and housing law were the most commonly covered areas, followed by consumer, discrimination and small business issues.  

The pandemic has strengthened students’ enthusiasm for pro bono volunteering, according to numerous respondents, requiring them to adapt to LegalTech in order to maintain delivery for vulnerable people. Anecdotal evidence in the report also suggest that need may have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with some students and law schools reporting that they are supporting more clients.

The findings come at a critical time in the evolution of legal education, and the moment of as regulatory and training requirements are overhauled. From next year in England and Wales, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) will introduce the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), which will include a requirement for work-based learning that can be undertaken in clinics. It will eventually replace the current route to practice – the Legal Practice Course (LPC).

Under the new route, students the requirement required to complete a minimum of two years’ qualifying work experience (QWE) before you can qualify as a solicitor will be more flexible. The survey’s findings suggest that law schools are ahead of the game, and have already recognised the value of providing pro bono experience to students – both for the students’ legal education and for society at large.

LawWorks Chairman, Alasdair Douglas, said:

"The pro bono work being carried out by law students across the country is remarkable, and it is clear that these students, with the supervision of qualified lawyers, are playing an ever-more significant role in the delivery of free advice to those in need – particularly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The willingness of this generation to improve access to justice truly embodies the values embedded in the Rule of Law.

"As we approach a significant moment for the future of legal education in the roll-out of the SQE, it is evident that law schools and students alike understand the value of pro bono as more than an educational tool. I hope that today’s students will carry their enthusiasm with them through to qualification and onwards to become ambassadors for pro bono in the legal profession."

Lucy Yeatman for The Clinical Legal Education Organisation (CLEO), said:

“This report is incredibly useful and important for all university law clinics.  CLEO works to promote clinical legal education through mutual support and through sharing good practice.  The information collated in this report helps to highlight the valuable work done by university law clinics and enables us to develop support and training where it is most needed.”

Penny Carey vice Chair of the Committee of Heads of UK Law Schools  said:

"I am not surprised by the inspirational findings of this report. As Dean of Hertfordshire law School, and Vice Chair of the Committee of Heads of UK Law Schools, I know law schools recognise the importance of having a law Clinic and offering pro bono work experience for students. This not only equips students with employability skills, but also strengthens the university’s relationships with its local community – from the law firms who will be employing students, to charities that need support, and to the public who need access to justice. It is heartening to hear the clinic students surveyed rating ‘helping others’ as equally as highly as improving their CV."

"2020 has been a highly unusual and challenging year for university communities and I am very proud that Hertfordshire was one of the law clinics that managed to take advantage of technology and move online to a provide a virtual law clinic within days of the first national lockdown. The introduction of such technological advances may have been forced upon us, but it is now being widely utilised as we have learnt to teach online and move other pro bono projects in to the virtual world. It is pleasing to see that many universities surveyed, like us, have managed to actually expand their clinic and pro bono offerings during this turbulent period and of course we are able to take these strides thanks to the support and assistance of LawWorks."

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