Working Theory

by Michael Reed


I do employment law for the Free Representation Unit.


michael at


Should student pro bono be compulsory?

08 June 2012

From 2013, New York will require all prospective lawyers to complete 50 hours of pro bono work as a condition of being admitted.1 In other words, student pro bono is being made mandatory.

Now, obviously, I am in favour of students doing pro bono work. It’s good for students, good for clients and, since I’m employed to supervise student volunteers at FRU, good for me too.

But I think compulsory pro bono for students is a bad idea.

First, it risks discriminating against students who have difficulty doing pro bono. It’s much easier to spend time volunteering if you don’t have to work to support yourself (or your family) or travel a long distance to your course or facing any of the many life challenges that lots of law students face. The nature of society being what it is, people with those sorts of problems are more likely to be from disadvantaged parts of society, in terms of income, education etc. We should be making the profession more accessible to them not less.

There is a slight double edge to this, in that I think those students are often the ones who benefit most, in career terms, from pro bono. If you start the Bar Course, for example, having followed the stereotypical barrister track – public school, Oxbridge etc – there’s a good chance that you’re well set to go on and get pupillage (or at least interviews).2 You don’t need to do FRU.3 If you’ve followed a less-standard path than you are more likely to need something to help you stand out. Doing a significant amount of pro bono is a good way of doing that.

So, the sorts of students who have most difficulty doing pro bono work are also likely to be the students who should be doing it – but I don’t see that making it compulsory helps them.

Second, I don’t think that its the business of the professions’ regulators to mandate pro bono. The point of regulating access to the profession is surely to provide some assurance of competence and integrity. Not niceness. I don’t think a sort of generalised niceness is, or should be, a requirement for being a lawyer. It’s good for lawyers to be good people too, but it’s not a requirement. There are some pretty unpleasant lawyers out there, but I don’t think they should be struck off.

Anyway, I don’t think doing pro bono work is an essential part of being a good person and a lawyer. If a lawyer does a competent, honest job for his clients, then goes home to his family, I don’t think it’s for me (or even the regulators) to say that he must make himself a better person by doing more pro bono work. That’s true whatever the circumstances, but is particularly clear if he’s working in a vital, but poorly paid area, such as legal aid. Or if he goes home to care for his disabled son.

If it’s wrong to make pro bono compulsory for qualified lawyers, it seems to me that it must be wrong for law students as well.

The ‘must do’ part is also a problem. People are most likely to do most pro bono work (and make it an enduring habit) if they are doing it voluntarily. If there is a mandatory 50 hours (and given that US law school last three years, that’s only 17 hours a year) lots of people will do the minimum. And then stop, possibly for their whole career.

Finally, speaking as someone who spends his time supervising students doing pro bono, I want my volunteers to be here because they want to be. Not because they’re ticking a compulsory box.

  1. Anne Barnard, ‘Top Judge Makes Free Legal Work Mandatory for Joining State Bar’ New York Times (NY, 1st May 2012) 

  2. The reasons for this are complicated and certainly not as simple as ‘barristers are all from Oxford and only like other Oxford chaps’. A lot is simply that a very good education gives you the best opportunity to get the sort of starry academic record that the Bar is, rightly, interested in. But this footnote is not the place to set out in full my views on social mobility and the Bar. 

  3. The fact that lots of people in that position do a great deal of FRU work shows, I think that a) there’s a lot more to get out of pro bono work than short term career advantage and b) a lot of public school / Oxbridge folks are nonetheless very decent people. 

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