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Pro Bono Week: How to make the business case for pro bono and its true value

students with laptop

As we approach the end of pro bono week, our thoughts have turned to reflect on how law students have stepped forward to help those in need of recourse to justice.  As lecturers and tutors with the Open University, we are lucky enough to work with groups of students who are motivated to help others.  With social justice at its core, the online criminal justice clinic that we have developed attempts to do just that.

Students consider the evidence in a criminal case where the convicted defendant continues to protest their innocence, alleging a miscarriage of justice. They work under the supervision of a solicitor.  Students carry out legal research and apply legal principles to determine whether there are any grounds for referral to the Criminal Cases Review Commission or for an appeal to be made.  The cases they work on involve serious criminal offences such as murder, manslaughter, assaults, and drugs cases.

The students work hard and spend many an hour poring over the evidence that is provided in a complex digital format.  They diligently attend training in advance of undertaking the work. Throughout the work, they participate in supervision sessions. They conclude with an advice and research document that details the research they have completed. Students are given guidance and support from the criminal justice team and each other We are always amazed how motivating the common joint purpose of assisting someone to gain justice can be.  In the main these students are juggling studies with personal and work commitments.  Good time management skills are crucial and excellent too for their future careers. 

However, as educators in higher education we are aware of the increasing need to provide students with the skills they need to succeed in legal practice, in what is a highly competitive market.  Students need to seek out these opportunities to advance onto meaningful employment within the legal profession. These skills are often difficult to place a value on.  The obvious skills are there, such as writing legal documents, achieved by drafting an advice and research document to name just one. But what about all those other softer skills that are not so easy to teach in a traditional way?  As educators who haves, like many others, been teaching during the recent Covid-19 pandemic, we have become more aware of the vital need to support students going into the profession with necessary emotional resilience and tools too often ignored before. These skills are required to equip them to recognize and deal with the onslaught and impact of vicarious trauma.

Over the last few years, the legal profession has started to realise that the nature of the work they undertake often has a mental and emotional impact on them. (Fleck, J and Francis R 2021).That cannot be ignored.

That mental and emotional impact applies equally to law students working on pro bono projects.  They are also exposed to the same criminal cases as the profession. How do we, as educators, assist students to protect themselves from the effect of vicarious trauma and equip them with the tools needed to cope when they enter the profession?  In the Criminal Justice Clinic, we provide training on vicarious trauma, discuss the issue openly in supervision meetings and operate an open door policy.  Previous students have noted reluctance to take part in this training at the start of their time in the clinic but by the end appreciate its importance.

We would argue that any pro bono clinic that involves students should be undertaking similar training. The added benefit to the profession is, that in addition to the obvious skills obtained by students participating in such pro bono work, potential employers can recruit the lawyers of tomorrow. These future employers have the knowledge that students on graduation will at least have acquired realistic, pragmatic, and useful understanding of what vicarious trauma is, its effects, its impact and how to deal with it. Awareness needs to come first.

As educators, how do we make a business case for pro bono? It is by simply showcasing the work that our students do to help others and crucially, by giving our students the subtle or “softer” skills that they need to succeed in professional practice.


Fleck, J and Francis R (2021) Vicarious trauma I the Legal Profession, a practical guide to trauma, burnout and collective care, Lon, Legal Action Group


Gillian Mawdsley 

Gillian Mawdsley 

Gillian Mawdsley is an Associate Lecturer in Law at The Open University




Emma Curryer 

Emma Curryer 

Emma Curryer is a Lecturer in Law at The Open University


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