We sometimes find ourselves wondering, "pro bono, why bother"? But the truth is, pro bono gives us the biggest platform to effect change for those who otherwise would go unheard.
My first encounter with what I'll define (incredibly broadly) as "the justice system" occurred when I was eight years old, and sat across our classroom work-group table from a friend called Chloe. While Chloe was also eight years old, she was (and still is…) significantly taller than I, and would often extend her legs under our table so they encroached on what I rather protectively viewed as my personal space. Finding this to be incredibly unfair, I let Chloe know that she had no right to use what was (in my mind) rightfully my space. But within a few minutes her legs were back on my side of the table. The tension between us rose and our teacher asked that we each explain the situation from our own perspectives. She then explained that while neither of us were wrong, per se, in what we viewed as "fair", neither of our positions took account of the whole situation, or the other person’s perspective. Chloe and I were encouraged to discuss our views, and come up with a solution that was fair to us both.
While with age, life experience and a few years of law school my expectations for what is fair and just (and how easily that can be achieved) have evolved, my interaction with Chloe was the first time I recognised how important it was to have my perspective not only be voiced, but actively considered.
This is the premise which underpins not only access to justice, but encapsulates the desire of every client I've had the privilege of working with at Toynbee Hall’s Free Legal Advice Centre – to clearly express themselves, to be heard and to have their perspective actively considered.
As lawyers we are incredibly privileged to have not only knowledge of the law, but also a comprehensive understanding of the array of often non-legal options available to people who feel they have been wronged or have an issue they need solved. We come fully equipped with the ability to analyse, strategise, think logically, problem solve, and write and speak well – a rather unique set of skills that can be used to expand access to justice outside our commercial law firm setting and reach people who might not otherwise have access to our expertise.
Pro bono comes from “pro bono public,” a Latin term meaning “for the public good.” It involves lawyers and law students volunteering their time to assist people who desperately need legal assistance and have no resources to get the support they need.
When asked, many lawyers will say they went to law school to make a difference in the world. And yes being a lawyer does make a difference, but perhaps not in the concrete way pro bono work can do. Through pro bono lawyers can make the legal system work for people who have nothing to give but their gratitude, empowering these people to clearly express themselves, to be heard and to have their perspective actively considered.