Louise Taylor of Anthony Gold Solicitors talks about her pro bono work with Centre 70 Legal Advice Clinic.
What is the name of the scheme which you participate in and what does it entail?
Centre 70 Legal Advice Clinic, which is a free legal advice clinic co-ordinated by Centre 70 and led by volunteer advisers (either practicing or retired solicitors or barristers). I am a volunteer ‘paralegal’ (an unqualified assistant) at the clinic and the clinic runs every Monday evening from 19:00 to 21:00 and is by appointment only. I volunteer there about once a month. Each adviser usually sees four people, with a 30 minute slot each. We provide advice on all sorts of issues, both legal and non-legal, spanning from housing queries to family problems to consumer problems to issues with education to making complaints to various institutions. Sometimes the adviser will be advising on an area of law that they know well and sometimes some research will be required. Sometimes the advice is given on the day, sometimes letters will be drafted after the meeting. When I started volunteering there were no other paralegals and Centre 70 only wanted qualified solicitors. Through some persuading, I managed to convince them that paralegals would be of use, which I think we are, and I now co-ordinate the other paralegal volunteers.
What benefits do you think the scheme provides to those who receive the services?
In addition to simply the provision of advice to the individuals who we see, Centre 70 provides a welcoming, caring and supportive environment for those who visit it. This is particularly important for some of the more vulnerable clients that we see who may otherwise be put off from seeking advice. In my view, the current welfare system is failing precisely those it was designed to protect. It is essential that organisations like Centre 70 exist, both to provide legal advice from those seeking it and to support and assist individuals who need it with dealing with their day-to-day problems that they might otherwise struggle to cope with. The fact that we have a number of regularly returning clients(!) is indicative of the fact that Centre 70 operates as something a little bit more than just a provider of advice.
What benefits do you get from participating in the scheme?
From a professional development perspective, volunteering on the scheme provides me with excellent experience in interviewing clients and often necessitates research into areas of law that I am not familiar with. From a more philanthropist perspective, I see volunteering at Centre 70 as doing something practical (however small) to help vulnerable people in society who often lack the support that they need in other aspects of their life; this might be something very small indeed like writing a letter to their phone company to make a complaint and sending it to the right person.
What do you enjoy about the scheme and what do you find challenging about the scheme?
I really enjoy volunteering at Centre 70, in part because it is a very well organised and fantastically run advice centre (and so I feel like the work I put in results in beneficial output for those we are advising) and in part because I enjoy meeting people from different parts of society to me and helping people. However, we only have limited time to see people and advise them and we do not take on clients’ cases for them. It can sometimes be quite difficult to balance providing useful advice assisting the client whilst not inadvertently taking on their case. In truth, volunteering can sometimes be quite a big time commitment when you are really busy at work but, if you try and approach it as another job, it becomes easier to time manage.
What is the importance for you in doing pro bono work and why would you encourage others to get involved?
The law is an extremely powerful tool that can be used, in the provision of pro bono advice, to help people - who do not otherwise have the resources or means - to obtain information about the law to obtain access to justice. In addition, the skills one acquires in the course of legal training: preparing a good argument, writing well and communicating effectively (amongst a plethora of others, I’m sure) are skills that are not so readily available to everyone. I believe strongly that I am privileged to have had the opportunity to acquire such knowledge and develop such skills and that I should utilise these tools to help other people.
Also, doing pro bono work provides insight into different areas of law, different areas of society and often necessitates one to think differently to how they might in their day-to-day job. I believe stepping outside of one’s comfort zone and learning new things is extremely beneficial for professional and personal development.
From an entirely individualist perspective, which is fine, everyone knows that, in order to progress in a fiercely competitive legal profession, we need do loads of extracurricular activities so you may as well help some people whilst you further your own career!