27 July 2007
(Partner, Litigation and Dispute Resolution, London)
I have participated as an honorary legal adviser (HLA) with the Citizens Advice Bureau at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, for more than five years. The RCJ Advice Bureau is a member of the national Citizens Advice organization, which is one of the largest advice-giving networks in the UK, helping people to resolve money, legal, and other problems for free since 1939. The RCJ Advice Bureau differs from most other advice bureaus, situated as it is at the High Court, and sees more requests for legal advice, especially from litigants in person. I consider my participation with the Bureau to be an important part of my commitment to the legal profession.
Every three months, I spend part of a day interviewing and advising clients who are not legally represented and who require guidance in the management of their claims. The clients usually appear at their allotted 45 minute appointments replete with paper and points of detail. In these cases, my first task is to extract the prime issue, and focus the discussion, rather than being treated to a summary of the entire claim.
The nature of queries varies enormously: most are civil matters, and can involve disputes about inheritance, boundaries harassment, fraud, or threats of eviction On occasion, you are faced with a new client who has ignored proceedings until after judgment has been entered against them; they are often very emotional.
Few of these queries are run-of-the-mill cases or clients for a commercial litigator. What they offer, however, is the opportunity to advise a client for whom the matter is more than a line on their budget: a client for whom the matter can mean their whole livelihood, their home, or even their mental health.
Many clients do not have good claims. Thus, one of the skills that has to be developed early on is the ability to explain, in simple terms, to an emotional client, why their claim is unlikely to succeed. For junior lawyers particularly, this is an important skill to develop, as the art of giving bad news is one that can only really be learned through practice. The "people skills" that have to be exercised in dealing with CAB clients is the same as those we exercise day-to-day in dealing with our demanding corporate clients.
Sometimes, however, the claim is meritorious and in those cases, the client substantially benefits from advice or assistance offered by an HLA. This is intensely rewarding, because it demonstrates the power of pro bono advice: that we can use our professional qualifications to benefit those who would not otherwise be able to afford to pay our fees.
I believe that performing this kind of pro bono work is important. On one level, it can be viewed as a valuable training opportunity, especially for junior lawyers, to become involved with, and to prepare advice for, litigants who could never be clients of the firm. More fundamentally, however, it provides a valuable perspective on how litigation is perceived, and how best to explain its complexities to someone unfamiliar with the process.
Harry Truman said that "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts." I learn something new every time I go to the Bureau and would encourage anyone to become involved. It gives back much more than you're required to put in. For information about the RCJ Advice Bureau, visit their web site at: http://www.rcjadvice.org.uk/