AustLII Home | Databases | WorldLII | Search | Feedback

Legal Education Digest

Legal Education Digest
You are here:  AustLII >> Databases >> Legal Education Digest >> 2005 >> [2005] LegEdDig 52

Database Search | Name Search | Recent Articles | Noteup | LawCite | Author Info | Download | Help

Booth, T --- "Student Pro Bono: Developing a Public Service Ethos in the Contemporary Australian Law School" [2005] LegEdDig 52; (2005) 14(2) Legal Education Digest 4

Student Pro Bono: Developing a Public Service Ethos in the Contemporary Australian Law School

T Booth

[2005] LegEdDig 52; (2005) 14(2) Legal Education Digest 4

29 Alt L J 6, 2004, pp 280–284

In Australia, the 2001 National Pro Bono Task Force found that, although the legal profession make a significant contribution to the community through its pro bono work, a high level of unmet demand for legal assistance remains. The objective of the Task Force was to increase the number of lawyers offering pro bono services in areas where there is the greatest need. A strong pro bono culture is more likely to prevail in Australia where an ethic of public service is inculcated in the legal profession at all levels and in all styles of practice.

Australian law schools are in a unique position to assist in fostering the cultural change necessary to support increased pro bono services. The transformative nature of legal education has been well documented and researchers have emphasised the importance of the communication of values by law schools to shaping legal culture. Although student pro bono work is not a new phenomenon in many law schools, such programs tend to operate in an ad hoc and informal manner. Institutionalised student pro bono programs are needed in law schools if we are to convey the significance of public service as a professional responsibility to our law students and promote the necessary cultural change. The most appropriate way to foster a strong pro bono culture at law school is to establish a highly visible and formal program that provides law students with opportunities to participate in suitable pro bono projects.

Clinical legal education programs form part of the academic curriculum and are assessed as such. The primary focus of these programs is on teaching small groups of students practical ‘lawyering’ skills and awareness of ethical and professional issues in a closely supervised simulated or real legal environment. In contrast, student pro bono programs are voluntary and primarily concerned with service to the community and fostering a public service ethos in participating law students. Of course, this does not mean that pro bono work will not enhance the academic curriculum but the focus is public service. In essence, student pro bono work is ‘voluntary work done out of a sense of professional responsibility, where the primary motivation for work is a concern for justice as opposed to securing gain.’

To generate the cultural change sought, a public service ethos needs to be as much a part of a law student as the ability to analyse a case or interpret a statute. However, empirical research has shown that this idealism generally does not last and there is considerable evidence of waning public interest commitment during law school. A major problem is that there is a lack of emphasis in the curriculum on issues associated with the disadvantaged or social justice and, overall, law school culture tends to emphasise ‘rigorous analysis, scholarship and economic success, rather than fostering respect for public interest work’.

Of course, compulsory pro bono graduation requirements are ambitious and would require intensive resources that are probably not within the reach of most Australian law schools. This simply means that we have to find other ways of achieving this change. Fringe pro bono programs are not sufficient. To incorporate students pro bono as part of the fabric of the law school, the following features of a student pro bono program are essential: (1) the institutionalisation of a formal program; (2) opportunities for student participation; (3) active promotion and recruitment of students and community organisations; (4) visible support and encouragement from staff; (5) a formal pro bono policy at faculty level; (6) formal recognition of student participation and service.

Pro Bono Students Australia (PBSA) has been established as a trial student placement program in the law school of the University of Western Sydney. Under the PBSA scheme, volunteer law students who are interested in doing pro bono work are matched with public interest and community organisations that need law-related services or with lawyers who require support doing pro bono work. PBSA is designed to be a formal outreach program that provides students with opportunities to participate in pro bono activities and community organisations with committed and skilled volunteers.

It is anticipated that many factors will contribute to the success of PBSA. Most importantly, if pro bono work and the ethic of public service are to become part of the law school culture, there must be visible support and encouragement from the university, the school and the staff. Student enthusiasm is vital and student recruitment will be an ongoing process. Its success will depend for a large part upon the seriousness with which the program is regarded by the law school. First, the PBSA should be provided with separate physical space within the law school. Second, staff enthusiasm and support will be crucial. Third, student involvement should be recognised and acknowledged through prizes and/or commendation at graduation and more informal occasions during the academic year. Currently the law school provides in-house support and administrative assistance supplied on a voluntary basis by the student steering committee. The squeeze on resources that is endemic in tertiary education means that PBSA must rely on external funding.

Pro bono legal services are required in our community to increase access to justice for the needy and disadvantaged. Although many lawyers are involved in the provision of such services, greater participation by the profession is required. The question is how we can induce more practitioners to provide much needed pro bono services. As legal educators, we need to take steps to broaden the framework of contemporary legal education to allow the ethos of public service to permeate the entire program. If student pro bono is well integrated with the existing law program, afforded visibility and accorded a serious position in the school, it will go a considerable distance to the generation the necessary cultural change.

AustLII: Copyright Policy | Disclaimers | Privacy Policy | Feedback