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Isabelle Westbury, trainee solicitor at Allen & Overy, tells us why she gives up her time to volunteer at our pro bono clinics.
Where have you volunteered? At the Battersea Legal Advice Clinic (BLAC). The law firm I work for, Allen & Overy, run a weekly evening legal advice clinic there.
Why did you decide to take on pro bono commitments? A number of reasons, some selfish, others less so. Mainly I wanted to get involved in pro bono to be able to use my skills in a manner which would help people directly. I’m still at a very early stage in my legal career, so sometimes when working at a big firm I feel like a tiny cog in a huge machine, and don’t always get to see what impact I make. At the BLAC I take on my own clients and interact with them directly, and can often see the immediate results of my advice. After all, having spent six years at university and law school, I’d like to think that I have some knowledge up in my head that is of use…There’s also a sense of doing what I can at a time of nationwide financial instability, where vital legal services are being cut by the day and access to justice is constantly being restricted; if I can impart some of my legal knowledge to good use, in however small a manner, then it’s at least something. On a more selfish note, I wanted to test myself – take on the challenge of being responsible for my own cases and be put on the spot when tackling difficult issues. It’ll only make me a better lawyer, I hope.
What is the greatest benefit of pro bono work? Undoubtedly feeling that you have helped someone’s life in some way. Sometimes clients come with issues that are a huge burden to them but easily solved through legal channels, so being able to help them or guide them through this process is very rewarding. As I have said above as well, the impact of legal aid cuts and the increasing restrictions on access to justice make the work of law centres so important, so it’s almost a sense of duty (that sounds ridiculous, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it) that, as someone with these legal skills, I help in what way I can. Plus, it would be remiss of me not to mention that working at BLAC on a weeknight means getting out of the office at a reasonable time!
How has it helped your career? I’m definitely far more confident handling legal questions and advising clients on the spot. Sometimes as a trainee lawyer you can feel a little bit out of depth with so many intelligent, and experienced, legal minds around you and instead feel that you know nothing. However by handling your own clients and cases, often under time pressure, at a law centre, you quickly realise how much you do in fact know and what you can contribute, both in that instant and in other situations at work where in the past I may have felt a little unsure of myself. On a wider note, I think others at Allen & Overy do notice when you stick your hand up to volunteer and contribute towards the pro bono work of the firm, as it’s such an important part of the firm’s identity and something which is widely encouraged.
What is the most memorable case you have worked on? I think my most memorable case was one in which a lady came to the clinic in quite some distress about an issue in recovering rent from a landlord. Often the nature of advice clinics is that you impart one-off advice and don’t always know what the final outcome is, but on this occasion she wrote a letter thanking me for her advice and explaining how it had helped her. Again, it goes back to the idea of being able to apply a legal skillset to often pressing and upsetting issues which otherwise might not appear to have a solution.
If you would like to volunteer at a SWLLC pro bono clinic find out here. Volunteer advisers will typically offer advice on housing, employment, small claims, crime, consumer matters, family law, litigation, immigration and personal injury. To volunteer, you must be either a qualified solicitor with a current practising certificate or a practising barrister and you must have experience in the area of law that you wish to advise on. If you are interested, send your CV to firstname.lastname@example.org and we shall contact you. To help this vital service continue please donate by texting SWLC01 £5/£10/£20 to 70070.