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Meeting the pro bono needs of start-ups and students

Advice services can include commercial and business law as well the social justice and welfare work traditionally undertaken by high street practices, explains Jackie Panter

11 July 2017

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The number of people who have limited resources but need to access legal services is always increasing. As has been documented by the legal press, a huge range of pro bono work is undertaken by the professions to meet some of the need for advice and assistance in our local communities. A recent example of this is how lawyers stepped in to provide practical legal support in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing, Grenfell Tower fire, and Finsbury Park attack.

Coverage of pro bono work often focuses on the areas of social justice and ‘high street work’, such as welfare rights and housing law. Manchester Law School has been working in partnership with 12 external organisations to provide pro bono opportunities for law students in a range of disciplines and activities. This has provided support for organisations such as the Personal Support Unit at the Manchester Civil Justice Centre. It meets a community need for people with limited resources and provides opportunities for students to gain some practical experience.

In April 2017, Manchester Law School’s first commercial law clinic, the Business Law Café, opened its doors to clients. The school began this initiative to offer free legal assistance to start-ups, small businesses, and entrepreneurs, in partnership with qualified commercial solicitors and enthusiastic students. It was born from a recognition of the growth of start-ups and developing small businesses in Manchester, with limited resources but a need for legal support; the need and desire of law students to gain practical experience; and the willingness of commercial lawyers to support the local community in their area of practice.

In addition to meeting a community need, the objective was part of the school’s strategy of increasing the range and number of pro bono opportunities for our law students. With an eye to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s incoming requirements for a period of work experience instead of a training contract, we, like other education institutions, have been implementing plans for provision of some form of a law clinic so students have the opportunity to put their knowledge and skills into practice. The Business Law Café provides practical experience in business and commercial law, going outside the usual areas of pro bono work.

The café is run in collaboration between the Law School and Addleshaw Goddard. Clients are interviewed by law students under the supervision of the firm’s lawyers, who offer their time and experience without charge. The students and lawyers then consider and research the legal issues, culminating with the clients receiving written information.

Often commercial lawyers want to get involved in pro bono work, but are restricted from supporting traditional law clinics where the area of practice does not match their expertise. In their practice, they may not have a chance to see clients face-to-face; the cafe offers an opportunity for them to develop their skills and training in a different environment. They get to work with law students who are just embarking on their legal careers, and the rewards for both parties from this type of mentoring are enormous.

The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive, with clients, lawyers, and students all saying how useful the business café is for them. One of the universal comments is on how well the students did. Everyone was impressed by their presentation, manner, discipline, and professionalism.

There remains a tension in offering pro bono services with volunteers filling in a gap to enable people to obtain access to justice. There is another tension, with law students meeting that need. Putting those issues aside for a lengthier debate, the need for legal advice and assistance on a pro bono basis is increasing at a time when practical experience is valued by future employers and the SRA is changing the rules about the prescribed period of qualifying work experience as part of the pathway to becoming licensed as a solicitor.

For more information on pro bono at Manchester Met, visit www2.mmu.ac.uk/law/study/school-life/pro-bono.

Jackie Panter is associate head of law at Manchester Metropolitan University

@jackiepanter www.law.mmu.ac.uk

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