Pro Bono Students Canada

Mandatory Pro Bono No Oxymoron for Osgoode

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By Kevin Marron — Lexpert Law Student and Associate Guide — May 22, 20212

Mandatory Pro Bono No Oxymoron for Osgoode

Mandatory pro bono may seem like a contradiction in terms, but students at Osgoode Hall Law School are not allowed to graduate without completing a minimum of 40 hours voluntary public interest work.

And students are overwhelmingly supportive, according to law professor Richard Haigh (pictured to the left), director of the Osgoode Public Interest Requirement (OPIR). It’s the only program of its kind in Canada and has been in place at the Toronto-based school since 2007, gaining a 99 per cent approval rate in student evaluations.

“We don’t like to call it mandatory pro bono,” says Haigh, who prefers the term “public interest work,” though some would see this as a distinction without a difference, since “pro bono” is a contraction of the Latin phrase “pro bono publico” which means “for the public good.”

But Haigh says the program has a broader scope than what is usually involved in pro bono work. Students can fulfill their requirement, not only with pro bono placements, but also by enrolling in classes that involve working at community legal aid clinics, the Innocence Project, an intellectual property clinical program and a human rights clinical program, all of which students receive academic credit for, as well as credit for the OPIR program. Students wanting to volunteer for pro bono work and get credit for it can do this through community placements that they find for themselves, providing these are approved by OPIR, or they can find placements through Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC), which works with law firms and other legal organizations to provide volunteer opportunities for students at every law school in Canada.

“I don’t think of it as compulsory,” says Haigh. “I think of it as opportunities for students to explore different things, network and meet people, engage in a bit of legal practice instead of just sitting in the classroom and to serve and help the community, which is part of what being a lawyer is all about. It’s important to instill those values.”

Nevertheless, every student must complete the 40 hours in order to graduate from Osgoode Hall. “I’ve had two students in the three years that I’ve been director who were adamantly opposed to doing it on a philosophical or principled basis. But they still had to do it because it was a requirement,” Haigh says.

Third year student Zohra Hasham, coordinator of the school’s PBSC chapter, is supportive of the mandatory program though she says some students doing pro bono work “may feel it kind of undermines their volunteerism. I can see that because you want to go in as a volunteer and then 40 hours down the line you’re asking your lawyer supervisor to sign off on these papers to show you’ve done the 40 hours.”

Nevertheless, she says, “I don’t think many people at Osgoode do the bare minimum.” Some pro bono projects require students to put in as many as 100 hours and students are sometimes bothered by the fact that their transcripts will only reflect the 40 hours required under OPIR. Hasham says students would like to have their transcripts reflect the extra hours they had done in order to show that they had done pro bono on a volunteer basis rather than just as a means of “getting the requirement out of the way.”

But Hasham maintains that OPIR is beneficial for students who might not otherwise have considered volunteering for pro bono work. “It pushes students to do things they may not ordinarily have done,” she says.

Hasham says she would like to see the OPIR model adopted at other law schools. Haigh says there was some interest in the concept among representatives of other law schools attending a recent pro bono conference.
But the concept of mandatory pro bono has not apparently gained much traction among senior law school administrators, according to Mayo Moran, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto and Ontario Region Representative with the Council of Canadian Law Deans. “It’s not one of the topics that comes up (at the Council),” she says. “All of us have lots and lots of voluntary public good activities, and we do talk a lot about how to support those because they’re labour intensive and it’s important to do a good job when we do those things. But in terms of a push to make things mandatory I haven’t heard other deans discussing that.”

The University of Toronto law school has no plans for moving in that direction. “We haven’t really had any serious discussion about it,” Moran says. There’s no need, she says, because “almost every single one of our students does some kind of significant voluntary activity as it is. So we feel that we’re probably doing a pretty good job of encouraging our students on a voluntary basis to engage in that type of activity.”

Moran says pro bono work is very important and she can see that there is an argument to be made that, if it is important, it should be mandatory. On the other hand, she adds, “We’ve always thought there’s something valuable about the voluntary nature of it and we’re happy that we’ve got such very, very high participation rates and lots of student dedication.”

But mandatory pro bono programs are catching on in the United States and elsewhere in the world, according Robert Granfield, a sociology professor at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, who has conducted research on pro bono legal work in Canada, the US and in Singapore, where two major law schools now have mandatory programs. He says this trend is driven by concerns about access to justice and the obligation of the legal profession to address this issue. However, his research has indicated that there is no difference in the level of participation in pro bono activities among lawyers who participated in mandatory programs in law schools and those who were not required to do pro bono work as students. Whether or not they participated in pro bono work had more to do with their circumstances and their work environment, he says.

And there will always be a perception that mandatory pro bono programs “taint the spirit of volunteerism,” Granfield says. “It just seems to be contradictory in a lot of people’s minds.”

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