Alex Woolhouse shares her experience delivering pro bono advice during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the fourth seat of my training contract, my fellow trainees have dispersed all over the world. Unlike the rest of my cohort, I opted (controversially) to stay in London and be seconded to the Pro Bono team in my own firm. While everyone was hurtling across the globe to sunnier offices and glistening skyscrapers, so too was a global pandemic that would change not only our training contracts, but also the way the entire legal profession operates. I have had a unique insight into the response of large law firms to this unprecedented crisis and can see first-hand the importance and the impact of the Pro Bono work lawyers do. I am now, more than ever, convinced that Pro Bono is not just a box-ticking exercise to impress clients, but a societal and moral imperative for the legal professional.
Legal Advice Clinics
Legal Advice Clinics have popped up all over the country to fill the gap in legal aid and have now become a vital service for the population in order to access justice. Their clients are often from low-income, diverse backgrounds and they require help now more than ever. As we know, global crises disproportionately effect women and minorities, and the same is true of this pandemic. In these times, stability and safety come from reliable access to housing, healthcare, income, and even internet, and people are reaching out to Legal Advice Clinics for assistance.
Lawyers have responded to the crisis in two ways in order to continue providing free legal advice through these clinics.
Firstly, the clinics have had to adapt quickly to be run digitally - over phones, over Skype, and by email. This is a huge change from the usual in-person clinics that are run throughout London and has required lawyers to rapidly develop their soft-skills with clients, particularly over the phone. Having done one myself, interviewing clients over the phone is a completely different experience to face-to-face. You have to be able to control and guide the conversation with just your voice, pick up on tiny social cues to get to the facts and be extra-clear with your client: it’s hard to ascertain whether your message has been received and understood fully just over the phone.
Secondly, these clinics rely on donations for financial support. Law firms have responded by plugging that fundraising gap, as clinics are unable to fundraise as usual due to the pandemic.
Law firms are creating so much know-how and research to guide clients as they respond to the crisis. Resources are all over the internet and on every firm’s website, and so much of this know-how is relevant for Pro Bono clients as well. NGOs and charities pretty much operate as small businesses, with employees to potentially furlough and loans to repay. However, as these resources are made for sophisticated business clients, they may be less accessible for smaller NGOs and charities.
When responding to the pandemic, law firms have been collaborating in new and exciting ways to ensure that there isn’t a duplication of work, but rather a pooling of Pro Bono expertise. Law firms know that each individual firm does not need to prepare a memo on the impact of COVID-19 for small charities, but that existing know-how and resources can be merged from lots of different firms to create guidance for Pro Bono clients quickly. It is amazing to see the output of the collective law firms when competition for work is taken out of the equation and the goal is to help others, using our expertise, for free. The Association of Pro Bono Counsel have coordinated the Pro Bono community’s response of 145 firms over 41 countries to prepare an online resource tool to identify legal issues and give access to this wide range of know-how to NGOs and charities.
Lessons and Conclusions
During the pandemic, I have at times felt utterly powerless, just as many others have. The response of our government has felt out of my hands, not to mention the movement of the virus across the world. It is important to focus on what is in our control and press forward in this time wherever we can. What positive impact can we make? How can the legal profession be a force of good in the wake of the global pandemic? Working from home, as well as a lighter busyness level for many people, both lend themselves to taking on more Pro Bono work which is more important now than ever. With the gift of extra time that many of us now have, I urge all legal professionals to use their expertise, knowledge and capacity to help others.