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Pro bono takes off

Number of students offering free legal assistance has skyrocketed
|Written By Helen Burnett
Pro bono takes off

Pro bono is a movement that is growing all across the legal community, and Canada’s law schools are no exception. Students in all three years are getting involved, providing a valuable legal service to numerous organizations across the country, and getting hands-on experience that will help them in their future careers.

Even if you aren’t participating in pro bono or haven’t yet been involved in a project, chances are you know someone who has. The number of students participating in organized pro bono work in Canadian law schools this year through Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC), which matches law student volunteers with community agencies that have a need for legal services, such as legal clinics and public interest groups, has ballooned to 2,000, up from only 50 in 1996, says Noah Aiken-Klar, associate national director of PBSC.


With 2,000 students doing pro bono through the organization every year at a minimum of three hours a week, (with many students dedicating more than 10 hours a week), Canadians are benefiting from 8,000 to 10,000 hours a week of free legal services and information for communities that don’t have access to justice without it, adds Aiken-Klar.


This year, PBSC is operating out of almost every law school in Canada, running 21 programs in civil and common law, including two pro bono programs at the University of Ottawa faculty of law.


A lot of the pro bono work students are taking on involves similar tasks to what the students are already working on in law school, such as research and drafting policies, manuals, guidelines, and public legal education materials. Many areas offer students the opportunity to volunteer in legal clinics and court, as well as tribunal programs where they help unrepresented litigants complete forms and pursue matters in family, small claims, and criminal courts. The areas of law are diverse, covering environmental, human rights and civil liberties, immigration and refugee, health, education, labour and employment, family, landlord-tenant, and aboriginal rights, to name a few.


In addition to giving law students a chance to help their communities and work on meaningful projects that can help focus their careers, pro bono can also give those students who come to law school not knowing what law they want to focus on the chance to try out different areas, says Aiken-Klar.


While organizations and associations call PBSC and request student pro bono resources, students play a big part in initiating the pro bono projects that they want to work on. “It’s really student driven in that sense, because we only match students on projects based on their interests and if they have particular interests then that’s what we try and find them.”


An organization such as PBSC also can give law students the chance to gain significant leadership experience, as all of the on-campus PBSC offices are student run. Aiken-Klar notes that his own experience while at the University of Toronto law school shows the benefits of learning leadership skills. His time as a volunteer led to a job as one of the program’s co-ordinators.


“The opportunity led to me getting experience, getting a job — the leadership experience on campus where suddenly I was in a leadership position. So I was managing programs, I was dealing with faculty members, dealing with deans, managing my peers in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise,” he says. “That was a huge thing for me, and all of our programs are built on that same model where students get leadership experience and they’re really the ones who are driving the programs and running the programs. We get great feedback from students about those skills that they get to develop, those leadership skills.”


Michael Barrack, a partner with McCarthy Tétrault LLP, the national firm partner of PBSC, says while the firm provides the lawyers to mentor the students across the country, it is the students who take on the role of providing advice or taking on a task for an organization.


“It’s really the students that are doing the front-line pro bono work in this involvement with McCarthys . . . in this one, we’re there to back up and mentor the students who are delivering the pro bono services.”


The University of British Columbia faculty of law’s independently run Law Students Legal Advice Program is another example of a pro bono initiative driven purely by law students. The program operates 20 full-service legal clinics on British Columbia’s lower mainland. Students provide assistance with legal issues such as criminal matters, small claims and tenancy, with each clinic having one lawyer on staff. The program also has an agreement with the Provincial Court of British Columbia, allowing students to go to court and represent clients in matters such as residential tenancy claims.


A select number of law students who volunteer with the program also receive some credit towards their law degree, requiring them to take on more work on files or on trials, says Matthew De Bock, PR director for the program and a student at the UBC faculty of law.


The program, says De Bock, is addressing a real and growing need in the community, and is also a way for students to fulfil goals while they are in law school, such as helping people who would otherwise go unrepresented, he says.


“[The students] provide help to people who really need it and gain real legal experience, which will be invaluable down the road,” he says.


Pro bono programs can provide students in all three years of law school with interesting opportunities, although the tasks may vary in each year depending on experience. For example, Aiken-Klar says a court-based pro bono program is generally for upper year students, as they have more training. In some law schools, however, volunteers seem to be mostly first-year students, while in others, second-and third-year students are better able to fit pro bono in with their schedules. Geneviève Chamberland, student co-ordinator for PBSC at the Université de Sherbrooke faculté de droit, says students volunteering with Sherbrooke’s PBSC program this year are mostly in second and third year, but first-year students at the school have been paired up with their upper-year colleagues. For some students in third year, she adds, it can be their last chance to get involved or gain practical experience in law school.


Admittedly, no matter which year of law school students are in, participation in pro bono work does take a lot of dedication, but Aiken-Klar says law students “tend to be the type of people who are used to doing everything and getting a lot done.”


In addition to providing the community with invaluable legal services, pro bono work also gives students extra

experience on their resumes that can make employers take notice later on.


Christine Galea, student co-ordinator for PBSC at Osgoode Hall Law School, where 100 law students volunteer three to five hours a week on average, says, “Everyone has that pro bono ethic and people want to do something in the public interest and do something to help society. But then realistically there’s the component part of it that students want to do it for the experience as well.”


Chamberland says pro bono gives students the chance to get practical experience while getting their theoretically-based degree. As the students get to choose the organizations they work with, they get the chance to work on something they enjoy while learning and gaining experience for their resumes before articling. “It’s also good for the resume, because right after the degree, you have to find an articling position, but when you don’t have any practical experience, it’s more difficult. With experience like this on the resume, it’s always good as you go on to work,” she says.


“Often when you’re competing with other amazing students, grades aren’t the only thing that are going to get you in the door or get you the job, and having a diverse background that shows you’re interested in the law and you’re engaged with your community, that really speaks a lot for students,” says Aiken-Klar. “What we see is that a lot of students actually, their pro bono experience contributes to whatever it is they wind up doing, whether it’s Bay Street or a legal clinic, it’s something that people take notice of.”


From the law firm perspective, Barrack says recently he asked a group of new lawyers at McCarthys about their previous pro bono involvement without having looked at their resumes or knowing their backgrounds. Out of the group of 30 lawyers, all but two had significant pro bono involvement during law school. “That tells you that when we look at resumes for people to hire, we look for people who not only have academic performance, but have done things outside of the classroom as well. That’s just a sample to show you that virtually all of the students we hire have been involved in pro bono.” Barrack says this shows the lawyers were able to perform academically as well as in outside commitments while in law school. They expect the same at the law firm.


“When you see students that have been significantly involved in pro bono as well as achieved academically, it gives you some sense that they’re going to be able to balance career and the other demands and that they’re going to have a sense of professional responsibility that we want to have in the lawyers,” he says.


It’s not just the firms that are looking for a pro bono commitment from law students anymore. At the recent first national pro bono conference, held in Toronto late last year, speakers commented that pro bono is also becoming an important factor for large firms in terms of recruiting articling students. Paul Schabas, chairman of Pro Bono Law Ontario, noted that articling students in Toronto are all asking the large firms what they are doing in relation to pro bono and in turn, firms have called organizations such as PBLO to help them get their pro bono policies in place.


Pro Bono Students Canada is relaunching a new national bilingual website that will be online this spring at www.probonostudents.ca

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