Last week I had the opportunity to speak with law students at Robson Hall as part of the Pro Bono Students Canada (“PBSC”) launch event. I had been asked to give a speech on my own pro bono and access to justice work with a view to motivating students to volunteer for one of the many interesting projects PBSC is coordinating this year. In preparing for the presentation, I thought back to my own days at Robson Hall and realized, with some dismay, how little I gave of my time to others at that point in my life.
Because I was invited to speak as an advocate for pro bono work, I decided I needed to clear up any misconceptions about how I got to that place, and opened my presentation with this confession:
I never did any pro bono legal work when I was in law school. I did volunteer in some student activities, but didn’t take advantage of the few existing opportunities at that time to apply my developing legal skills to help others.
In fact, when I was in law school, I never considered that I might someday be asked or even expected to take on legal work for free. Now it’s possible that I missed the lecture on a lawyer’s obligation to contribute her time and skill for the public good, but I really don’t recall this being an area of emphasis for law students some twenty-odd years ago.
So that’s my confession. I didn’t start my career thinking about how I was going to help others who might not be able to afford legal services. And I really didn’t consider how not being able to access legal services might impact those individuals.
Law students today, in my experience, are much more attuned to issues of access to justice than we were “back in the day.” Of course, those issues have grown more significant over the past 25 years, such that law schools have no choice but to bring these to their students’ attention. And, competition for a declining number of articling positions makes any kind of practical legal experience all the more desirable to the job-seeking student. But even so, I was most impressed with both the number of students attending the event and the quality and range of projects available for them to work on, for the public good.
There are a multitude of reasons to take on pro bono work, whether you are a lawyer or a law student. It will enhance your skills, whether in clear legal writing, advocacy or listening. Through pro bono work, you’ll make a positive contribution to your community. You’ll connect with colleagues in a different kind of way. Pro bono work can also provide opportunities to stretch yourself and work in new areas.
One of the unexpected benefits I have found is the opportunities that pro bono work brings to work with those outside the legal profession. Through my career so far, one of the lessons I have learned is that the greatest opportunities lie at points of intersection. When we come to an intersection or fork in the road, we are presented with possibility. Whether it’s a fork in the road of your life or the point where your work intersects with someone from another place or perspective, it is at these places of intersection that you have tremendous opportunity to effect change. You might join forces with others or go ahead on your own to forge a new path. You could take a chance and walk the path of another awhile.
When you have the chance to work with those in other professions and sectors toward a common client service goal, not only will you broaden your experience and skill-set, but also your mindset. Such opportunities help you to think outside the “legal box” and enhance your ability to eventually provide capable and competent assistance to your clients.
Whether you’re a law student new to the idea of pro bono work or a lawyer looking for new ways to contribute to reducing the gaps in access to justice in your community, you’ll find that at the intersection of law and other disciplines, opportunities abound to broaden your perspective while learning something new and useful to your legal practice. If you’re interested in exploring some of those opportunities, contact PBSC for information on projects in your community. You won’t regret getting involved.