Day in the life...Shyam Popat

The ups and downs of working at the frontline of pro bono by Advocate’s Head of Casework 


6am in sunny Watford. I get ready quickly, to allow enough time to make sandwiches for my GP wife and myself. I’ll be out of the door in time to catch the 7.10am into Euston; crushed up against the doors, reading news on the BBC or catching up on Prison Break on Netflix.

It’s a different journey from my old commute to the South West London Law Centres in Croydon, where I worked for the last four years, following a three-year stint at Advocate (2012-2015). Returning as Head of Casework and Joint Chief Operating Officer in March 2019 was a challenge I could not say no to. My role back in 2012 was as a caseworker, which is a demanding one. The tough aspects of the role – not being able to help everyone who applies, dealing with distressed applicants, and realising the terrifying extent of unmet legal need – are tempered by the joy of working in a team of truly wonderful colleagues. There is real satisfaction to be gained in assisting those with meritorious cases to access legal advice. My time as a caseworker also taught me the immense value to some applicants in carefully communicated negative advice, particularly when this is made available early on in the legal process. A belief in the importance of this early access to advice, be it positive or negative, is something I took with me to South West London Law Centres, where I saw even more the plight that litigants in person often face alone.

I can still remember the first case I logged in 2012: a 15-year-old boy who was facing problems at school and was being denied access to support for his special educational needs. He was also suffering from a terminal illness. The Local Education Authority (LEA) was refusing to conduct a statutory assessment and then, when it finally did the assessment, it did not follow its recommendations. Our applicant sought advice on what they could do next to persuade the LEA to change its mind. The story ended positively following pro bono assistance but, had it not been for the specialist volunteer barrister that Advocate found, the story would not have a happy ending.

These days I’m in the office by 8am and straight into the email inbox, often responding to referral agencies such as Citizens Advice or a Law Centre who want more information about specific cases, and whether they’re suitable for our help. I might spend time ensuring protocols and forms governing new pro bono schemes are in order. For example, recently the Chancery Bar Association launched a new pilot mediation scheme in partnership with Advocate. One of my least favourite tasks is responding to complaints. A few of these will be from someone who was deemed ineligible for our service. Every case is assessed for merit and means by our squad of 150 senior reviewing barristers, and some applicants become angry when they hear that we will not look for a barrister for them. One of the main reasons might be that the case isn’t suitable for work by a barrister, or that the case is not sufficiently meritorious to deserve pro bono assistance. Explaining this to someone who is vulnerable and has been struggling with their legal case for a long time is a fraught process.

9.30am every morning is an operations meeting with Mary, our Head of Fundraising and Communications – we might be confirming how to resource IT support for the year ahead, planning staff appraisals, discussing strategic reviewer recruitment or progressing the online transformation project.

Just before 10am the casework volunteers for the day arrive in the office; generally four to six students who each give one day a week, and Monday to Friday answer the all-important enquiries line which goes live at 10.15am. Then the office can get really noisy; with applicants asking for updates, people wanting to know how to apply, and frequently calls being transferred to me to deal with more vulnerable applicants who are angry or upset.

Often there’s a meeting to attend, with regular get-togethers between the senior staff of the Litigants in Person Support Strategy partners. We discuss how we can help each other, any new trends we’ve spotted that are affecting litigants in person or our services, and any new projects we can collaborate on. Recently I’ve been talking about the new online project and how that will make things quicker and simpler; updating my peers on our newly recruited Volunteer Manager, Bryony and her work to better support our volunteer barristers. Excitedly, I update the partners on the development of the Employment Lawyers’ Association ELIPS scheme which just launched in the Birmingham Employment Tribunal, covered as usual by the Advocate licence and protocol.

The sandwiches are invariably eaten at the desk and in the afternoon I focus on casework; answering queries related to particular cases, looking for reviewers for specific areas if people are away on holiday or too busy to review an urgent case. Or, as was the case yesterday, looking at statistics to work out which cities we need to increase engagement in through the Regional Legal Walks.

Often the afternoon holds another meeting; we’ve just launched a project with City University and LexisNexis to use legal design to simplify the explanation on our website of our eligibility criteria and how the service works. I’m needed in the room to make sure we accurately capture the detail of the criteria and process, as well as to feed in an understanding of how applicants feel as they progress through the service. I’ll head back to my desk and might see an email from Mary asking for applicants who might be able to give evidence to a Select Committee, or perhaps share their stories with the BBC. There will be final emails to respond to in relation to refining reviewer training, board meeting preparation or drafting articles for Counsel magazine such as this. Then I’ll be off, onto the tube to catch the 7.34pm from Euston back to Wapping, for a brief respite before it all starts again in the morning.

What keeps me going? Within a week of being back in the office an applicant called me, saying ‘You kind of saved my life. I never said it before but you were amazing so thank you. This case was so important to show that people like me can win! I couldn’t have done it without your support.’

He reminded me that whatever the value to society of each case, every applicant is an individual and for them the importance of what we do should never be underestimated. 

Be recognised for your pro bono contribution

The 2019 Bar Pro Bono Awards are open for nominations at www.weareadvocate.org.uk, supported this year by Headline Sponsor LexisNexis. Nominate now in one of nine categories:

  • Young Pro Bono Barrister of the Year, sponsored by Place Campbell
  • Junior Pro Bono Barrister of the Year, sponsored by Juriosity
  • Pro Bono QC of the Year
  • International Pro Bono Barrister of the Year
  • Employed Pro Bono Barrister of the Year
  • Pro Bono Chambers’ Staff Member of the Year, sponsored by the Legal Practice Management Association
  • Pro Bono Innovation of the Year
  • Pro Bono Chambers of the Year
  • Lifetime Achievement in Pro Bono, the Sydney Elland Goldsmith Award

The awards are the only recognition event purely dedicated to celebrating all pro bono work undertaken by the Bar, across the country and internationally. The judging panel includes leaders from across the Bar including the Lord Chief Justice, Chair of the Bar, the Secret Barrister and Lord Goldsmith QC (Advocate Founder and President).

All nominees will be invited to an Awards evening taking place in Pro Bono Week (4-8 November) at which winners of most categories will be announced. The winner of Pro Bono Young Barrister of the Year and the 2019 winner of Lifetime Achievement in Pro Bono will be presented with their awards by Baroness Hale, at the Bar Conference on Saturday 23 November 2019.

Read the snapshots of last year’s winners, and why they do pro bono, here:
https://www.counselmagazine.co.uk/articles/bar-pro-bono-award-winners-2018

Pro Bono Week 2019

Pro Bono Week will take place from 4-8 November 2019. Now in its 18th year, events and campaigns in Pro Bono Week encourage and support lawyers and law students to volunteer to give legal help to those in need.

Law firms, chambers, legal societies, charities, universities and law schools are signing up to host events during Pro Bono Week, focusing on four key areas:

  • Changing lives through pro bono: Highlighting how legal volunteering makes a difference to the public and can even lead to changes in the law.
  • Celebrating pro bono: Showcasing pro bono work and achievements of volunteer lawyers; for example the Advocate Bar Pro Bono Awards will take place on 6 November 2019.
  • Why pro bono is good for you: Demonstrating the career value of pro bono through events which explore the benefits of pro bono in terms of collaboration and impact on practice development.
  • New developments in pro bono: Specific areas of development and best practice in pro bono schemes, such as cross-sector collaboration, integrating the Sustainable Development Goals into pro bono practice, improving pro bono technical assistance and use of new legal technology.

 

Pro Bono Week 2019 was announced by the former Solicitor General Robert Buckland QC MP during a speech at the National Pro Bono Centre: ‘Pro Bono Week offers us a chance to celebrate and recognise some of the extraordinary contributions lawyers make in giving free legal help to those in need. In November, Pro Bono Week returns for its 18th year, and will continue to highlight the many ways members of the legal community can volunteer their time and expertise to help individuals, charities and community groups.’  

Resources and updates are at www.probonoweek.org.uk.  Plan your event now and get it added to the national calendar online by emailing probonoweek@atjf.org.uk, or for any tips on events to hold or campaigns you can join.

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Shyam Popat

Shyam Popat is the Joint Chief Operating Officer and Head of Casework at Advocate (the new name of the Bar Pro Bono Unit): weareadvocate.org.uk.