Pro Bono Students Canada

Pro Bono: Good for Law Students and Good for the Community

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By Kevin Marron — The Law Student and Associate Recruitment Guide — May 26, 2012.

Pro Bono: Good for Law Students and Good for the Community

Law student Joe Ensom (pictured to the left) has yet to embark on his career as a litigator but he has already won his first case.

The third year University of Toronto student describes the frisson of excitement he felt when he checked an online legal database for a decision of the Health Professions Appeal and Review Board to find himself named as an agent for the applicant. “That was a big moment for me,” he says. “Here was a real case that matters to someone and my name is on it just like any other lawyer working on a case.”

As Ensom observes, it’s rare for a law student to get an opportunity to argue a real case. And this is just one reason why he is enthusiastic about the Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC) program that presented him with the chance to act as an advocate for people who have complaints about doctors and other health professionals that involve allegations of mistreatment, but do not rise to the level of malpractice claims.

For Ensom, as for numerous other students in every law school in Canada, pro bono work offers a unique opportunity, not only to make a difference in the community, but also to gain the kind of practical professional experience that academic institutions are seldom able to provide.

“I really gained a lot of advocacy experience,” he says. “This is an administrative tribunal, not a court, but it’s similar enough that you get really great practical experience as a litigator. And, as someone who wants to do that as a career, that’s what really attracted me to the project in the first place.”

Ensom spent one year on the project acting as an advocate and is now a volunteer coordinator. In this more administrative role, he says he has gained an additional set of skills and experience, learning how to organize events such as mock hearings or panel discussions. For example, he now understands what persuasive powers and logistical skills are required to get five very busy people into one room at the same time – skills that will stand him in good stead in future dealings with clients and other lawyers.

“We provide a training ground so students are more prepared for what it means to be a lawyer,” says Nikki Gershbain, national director of PBSC, a 16-year-old organization that facilitates pro bono work for about 1,600 students – 25 per cent of all those enrolled in Canadian law schools. In fact, the number of students wanting to do pro bono work is greater than the organization can accommodate with its current resources, so that 600 students had to be turned away last year, she adds.

The Medico-Legal Society of Toronto’s advocacy project that Ensom is engaged in is one of 500 projects co-sponsored by PBSC. These projects span every area of legal work with every kind of community partner, Gershbain says, ranging from legal education sessions for refugees in detention centres to preparing articles of incorporation for non-profit organizations.

Professional development is not, of course, the prime reason for doing pro bono work, as a great many students enter law school wanting to do some good in the world, she says. “Pro bono work is an opportunity to do community service and increase access to justice.” Furthermore, Gershbain adds, once students begin working on access to justice projects “it opens their eyes to the need that is out there.”

Barbara Grossman, a partner with Dentons (formerly Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP) maintains that it’s a professional obligation for lawyers to do pro bono work and it’s therefore very valuable for law students to become exposed to pro bono opportunities as soon as possible. Her firm is sponsoring a joint pilot program with PBSC for law students to represent low income people appearing before the Tax Court of Canada. Besides making a huge impact on the lives of the people they serve, she says pro bono projects help students gain experience in the practice of law, “which is very different from the study of law.”

“It can help you determine whether you will like the practice of law and what area of law you want to practise in,” Grossman says. One of the students engaged in the tax court project, for example, had been planning to article at a labour and employment firm, but found that she really liked tax law and tax litigation. So she decided to apply for a position as law clerk in the Tax Court of Canada, a job that she was successful in landing perhaps partly because of her participation in the pro bono project.

Doing pro bono work as a student won’t necessarily boost your chances of getting a job. Nor will not doing it always hurt your chances. But it can certainly be an asset, says Grossman. Her firm, for example, has a strong commitment to pro bono work “so obviously we’re looking for and trying to recruit students who bring a shared commitment to the professional values that we hold.”

Gershbain agrees that a student whose resume reflects that he or she has volunteered for pro bono work may have some advantage in the job market. “Many employers say it reflects the fact that a student is multi-dimensional and also has had some additional training.”

Like many other students volunteering for pro bono work, Ensom has altruistic motives, but is also well aware of how it could advance his career. “The big reason for doing it,” he says, “is giving back to the community. Lawyers have an ethical responsibility because we have a monopoly on the profession and it’s very expensive to get legal services. Helping out in any way we can is an imperative.”

Nevertheless, Ensom adds, “It’s a fantastic opportunity for students to practise skills and meet people. I’ve met people in the medical and legal community who I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I’ve made those connections and learned a lot.”

Pro Bono work, he concludes, “is good for us and it’s good for the community.”

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