‘We have never seen clients in this state before.’ I am Zooming with Rebecca Wilkie in October, a few months into her appointment as CEO of Advocate, formerly known as the Bar Pro Bono Unit. Quick to pre-empt any misconceptions about her wood-panelled background, she explains that she has made the trip to the office in South Square today: ‘I am not in my house now, just to let you know. This definitely looks more grand.’

Advocate is operating at absolute capacity and, needless to say, the advice sector has been seriously impacted by the pandemic. ‘Applicants are either struggling digitally, or just do not know what they need help with, and the correct documents that are needed. If it’s a vulnerable client, this can make it difficult and is definitely one of the challenges.’

Rebecca re-joined the organisation in July 2020, having previously been its CEO from 2007 to 2015. ‘It seems like a different organisation now. It’s on a different scale. I have also changed a lot, too.’ When Rebecca first joined, Advocate was called the Bar Pro Bono Unit. It had been going for 11 years after being set up by Lord Goldsmith, and there were just three caseworkers and an administrator. The Unit was based in the Bar Council building, next to the Free Representation Unit and it was the first time Rebecca had worked directly with the Bar. This time round, she manages a team of 14 staff, all of whom have been flat out since the pandemic. The capacity of advice centres has been harmed by COVID-19 and lockdown made it necessary to drop the requirement for a referral. This enables applicants to apply directly, meaning that much of the triage work is now done by Advocate. Pre-lockdown, everything was also paper-based. ‘This change of going paperless has speeded things up. But there has been a lot of effort by the team to get us there.’

So has a positive of lockdown been that the organisation can now manage case files more efficiently, I ask? ‘Absolutely. Reviewers can see files online. We don’t have to wait for documents to be sent back to us, for us to then send them on to another panel member. The real issue we are contending with at the moment is how to make it work best for the applicant.’

The work of the organisation has been stupendous: ‘We were involved in the inquiry into the death of baby Harry Richford that led to a prosecution for unsafe clinical care. But we have also had less high-profile work that’s equally important, like Frank, the boat-dweller, whose case went to the Court of Appeal and resulted in a change in housing benefit law and Daniel, a pensioner who was told he owed Croydon local authority £16,000 and was made homeless as a result.

‘We also helped Brian, a veteran who served in Northern Ireland during the troubles. His experience left him with a serious knee impairment, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and he developed type 2 diabetes as a result. This was a pension appeal and resulted in more money and a huge weight off Brian’s shoulders.’

As we go on to discuss numerous other cases, Rebecca is clearly moved as she talks to me about how they have changed people’s lives. It’s definitely a calling for her – found after she spent two years with a Silver Circle law firm. After successfully completing her training contract, she turned down an associate position. ‘My partner at the time was working for the voluntary sector, and he would come home and always have so much to talk about. Unfortunately, I did not find the same passion for commercial law but I loved the pro bono work I undertook.’ One case that still stands out was in relation to a British prisoner who had been tortured in a Japanese prison. ‘I am more than willing to work long hours, but it has to be something you are passionate about.’

So she went from qualifying as a solicitor to spending four years with the charity LawWorks, working with law firms to set up pro bono projects all around the country before doing a Masters in voluntary sector management. Then she made the leap to applying to be CEO of the Bar Pro Bono Unit. Were there any difficulties she faced? She was welcomed into the job by the Board but ‘it was a different dynamic for me. The people I was mainly working with were senior barristers.’

Did Rebecca face any issues as a female CEO? Does it make a difference being in the voluntary sector as opposed to another sector? ‘Yes, good point. I think there are more female CEOs in this sector than others. Diversity at the Bar is an ongoing issue but in the voluntary sector from a gender perspective it’s completely different.’ We discuss this at length, and I am amazed at the amount of wisdom and understanding Rebecca has around this issue. ‘I have a mentor. The Kilfinan Group [paired me] up with a senior businesswoman and she has been brilliant.’

The legal aid cuts came in during the time Rebecca was CEO. ‘For us, it was a slow and steady growth [in enquiries] from 2005. It was something like a 70% increase. We were always mindful of how we were making an ask of the Bar. Ideally there should be no need for pro bono. But it is an imperfect system and pro bono is a necessary part of it.’

The Unit expanded along with demand over the course of the years. ‘We are almost entirely funded by the Bar. Not many people know that.’ I admit I didn’t. ‘We are proud of this. I also think the Bar sometimes takes a bashing – but not only are barristers volunteering, actually a lot of them are donating to support us.’

She describes the £35 donation initiative during Michael Todd QC’s tenure as Chair of the Bar in 2012 as ‘a breakthrough’. He came to see us and asked why we did not have better resources. I explained that we couldn’t afford [decent desks and PCs and had little time] for fundraising. He said, “Well, surely we can do something to help.” With this core funding we were able to expand. It made a real difference and continues to be our main source of income.’

She left the Unit in 2015 in order to spend more time at home with her three children. ‘My husband and I split the childcare equally between us. I think what has worked for us is that one of us would solely focus on our career while the other managed home and kids, and vice versa.’

She then joined the Litigant in Person Support Strategy part-time. ‘It worked perfectly. I was able to see the children grow up but also have something that I could work on, so I was not only identifying as a mum.’

Rebecca re-joined the Unit, now known as Advocate in July 2020. ‘I wanted to get back to front line delivery and get back to working with the Bar.’ I ask whether embedding pro bono as early as possible with the Bar would help? ‘That would be a long-term ambition – young aspiring barristers are the future of the profession.’

Rebecca is constantly impressed by the amount of time barristers give ‘yet they never want to trumpet it’. ‘It is never done with a sense of, I will do it, but I want you to nominate me for an award. The truth is, it’s done because they just believe in it.’

How has COVID impacted this? ‘There has been a big increase in housing law, family and employment issues. We placed 79% more cases in 2020 than the whole of 2019. Over the course of 2020, more than 400 barristers signed up to become new panel members, many of them second six pupils and junior barristers. ‘There’s been a willingness to roll their sleeves up and just help where they can. They came to the call. They really did. We have had some great results.’

‘The mindset has also changed,’ she adds. ‘Barristers don’t only do it because they feel it’s something you should do to help people. They are doing it for their own development too, and we’re keen to support this at all stages in their careers.’

Given this, why does Rebecca think some barristers are still reluctant to engage in pro bono? ‘Perhaps they feel that clients will constantly be emailing and calling them.’ I can see the logic in this; within chambers you have a dedicated clerks’ team who work night and day to manage diaries. Rebecca reassures me: ‘I think it’s important to add that we are always with you along the way – your inbox will not be bombarded, we will police this.’

So what is her vision for the future now that she’s back with even more to offer? ‘Help more people the best we can. And also consider how we work with barristers to improve their experience of providing pro bono, to make it mutually beneficial for all.’

Final thoughts? ‘The Bar has been right beside us and behaved brilliantly throughout. We hope this continues. It’s more important now than ever.’