National Pro Bono Week – Everyone’s a winner!

By Linden Thomas

The University of Birmingham Law School joined the Environmental Law Foundation university pro bono clinic network in January 2015. Whilst we had been delivering pro bono services for several years by that point, the ELF partnership was a new model for us, in that it involved working collaboratively with two external partner organisations.

A collaborative approach
The Birmingham ELF clinic is a three-way collaboration between Birmingham Law School, ELF and No5 Chambers. ELF receives preliminary queries from members of the public and conducts an initial screen, to ensure that the case is not too complex or urgent to be referred to the University. Where a suitable case is identified the query is then forwarded to our clinic coordinator, who is a member of academic staff within the Law School. The usual conflict checks are carried out and, once we have the all clear, we then liaise with No5 Chambers to secure a barrister to supervise the case on a pro bono basis. At that point, two or three student volunteers are allocated to the case. In a team they begin to research their case and prepare their questions for the client interview, which is carried out, often via telephone, in the presence of the supervising barrister. Following the interview the students have around two weeks to research and draft a substantive letter of advice, which is eventually signed off by the barrister (usually after one or two drafts!).

Everyone’s a winner
The advantages to those students who participate in the clinic are manifold. In an era where employers expect students to be able to evidence soft skills, such as team work, working under pressure and good communication, our ELF volunteers have tangible examples to relate about dividing up workloads, researching and drafting as a team and meeting client deadlines, alongside their academic and other commitments. For many students, the ELF clinic will also be the first time that they experience the law in practice and it can be a formative experience. Rather than seeing law as a purely academic subject, students are able to use it as a tool, to help people to understand or overcome a problem that they face. Through ELF the students have the opportunity to analyse documentation, conduct practical legal research and hone their legal drafting in a supported and supervised environment. For some of our volunteers, it has persuaded them, not only that a career in law is for them, but that they wish to specialise in environmental law.

In turn, the clinic increases ELF’s capacity to meet the growing demand for independent and high quality legal advice. It allows ELF to support clients who it may not otherwise have had the resources to assist. And for the barristers, they tell me that they enjoy giving something back, not only to the clients, but to the students as well.

Student feedback:

“I enjoyed the team work and the sense of achievement when we successfully completed the letter of advice.”

“Researching this case was particularly enjoyable. I hope to one day to practice in environmental law, so seeing it in action, and being able to research particular aspects of it, was what I especially enjoyed”.

What’s the secret to success?
The strength of ELF’s collaboration lies in two key areas. First: quality is not compromised. This is supported by the feedback that we receive from our clients about the service we provide. In 2015-16 100% of our ELF clients rated our service as good or very good; 100% said that they would use our service again; and 100% said that they would recommend our service to others. Second: it is a true collaboration, from which all those involved benefit. If pro bono means ‘for good’ then the ELF collaboration epitomises that, both in spirit and in substance.

Client feedback:

“I am sorry that it has taken this long to write to you all and express my most sincere grateful thanks to you for the hard work and effort you have kindly put in to help us with this case. It is so very much appreciated and I cannot thank you enough… it is easier to accept the situation in the knowledge that it has been carefully considered by our Birmingham friends and we now know the situation from a matter of fact, rather than feeling bullied, without affordable advice.”