Pro Bono Watch

There is an entire industry that has sprung up to advise those applying for Silk, but what they might not have told you is that doing pro bono work is a very good place to start. Laurent Sykes QC joins Jess Campbell in Pro Bono Watch this month to tell you how it works


There are many reasons that motivate barristers to undertake pro bono cases. 

At the Unit we are open to any reason; our main purpose is to help as many people as possible. In National Pro Bono Week 2017 we hosted an event with the Young Barristers’ Committee highlighting ways pro bono work can help your career. Laurent Sykes QC of Grays Inn Tax Chambers, who joined us to explain his experience of pro bono, sets out below the benefits in terms of career progression.

Pro bono and the Silk trail

It goes without saying that those who assist through the Unit are helping others in ways which are profound, but the purpose of this short article is to set out what the Unit can do for you in terms of career progression. This is framed for convenience in terms of the QC application process, but the same points apply to career progression generally.

The QC application process requires you to demonstrate that various criteria are met. These include the following:

Understanding and using the law, and sufficiently high standards of oral and written advocacy. This means legal versatility as well as being able to handle cases of substance, complexity or particular difficulty.
The ability to work with others (professional and lay clients and those on the other side). Referees are required, and not only judicial referees. It could for instance be someone who you were against.
Integrity, and also skills in relation to diversity which are about showing you interact effectively with people who are different from you.

Those qualities are going to be pretty important to a successful barrister irrespective of the QC process. So how can the Unit give you the material you need to demonstrate you have these skills or help you to refine them?

In terms of advocacy, and in marked contrast to paid work, the barrister considering whether to take on a case for the Unit is ‘the shopper’. You choose the cases you want to do, rather than the client choosing you. There are a number of cases of real substance involving points of legal significance coming through. You can opt for a case which is within your field of expertise but where you would not get a foot in the door normally. In that way you can break the Catch 22 situation where you don’t get the work without the experience but you don’t get the experience without the work. If you want a leader, there is nothing stopping you bringing one in. Some of the cases done by the Unit are high profile, as the recent Bar Pro Bono Award shows. They can involve novel points of law and sometimes go all the way up the court system, including to the Court of Appeal. These are the cases that score highly in the advocacy section of the Silk application process. You may also get a slightly more gentle treatment from the judge hearing your case; they will be particularly conscious that you are doing some of the work which they would have had to do had the client been unrepresented.

In terms of working with others, some Unit cases have involved junior members of the Bar working against highly rated barristers for the government, for instance. You may be able to bring in solicitors if a case merits it and make contacts that way. Or, as noted, you can bring in a leader including one from a different set. These contacts will be useful professionally and potentially also as part of the Silk selection process when you need to provide referees.

In terms of diversity, the Unit is open to all who meet the means criteria so this results in all kinds of people as clients. For instance, your client or the person on the other side may be vulnerable, requiring you to adapt your style to ensure a fair trial. Being able to demonstrate the ability to do that is valuable.

Stepping back from all of that, the cases done by the Unit are sometimes extreme in some way, and they will often leave a mark on you for long after the matter has concluded. That is true on an emotional level but the cases you do for the Unit will also assist on a professional level.

Receiving details of cases on offer by the Bar Pro Bono Unit could not be easier. The registration form available here.

Your moment to donate

It might surprise you to know that when asked to donate £30 to the Bar Pro Bono Unit at the time of renewing practising certificates, just 51.2% of the Bar leave the contribution ticked.

It might surprise you even more to hear that the majority of the barristers who make this symbolic contribution are from the publicly funded Bar.

The Unit was founded 21 years ago by barristers looking for a way to structure the pro bono work of the Bar. It remains the sole pro bono charity able to provide access to legal drafting, advice and representation in every area of law in all courts and tribunals across England and Wales.

Without funding from the Bar through this key initiative, the Unit simply could not exist. When using the My Bar portal, please remember how much difference comes from just £30.

£30 means a lot to us, but for you it might represent:

13 flat whites from Pret;
10% of a barrister’s wig;
5% of the White Book;
20% of a barrister’s gown; or
a lunch from Natural Kitchen.

Don’t forget the difference you can make to people’s lives through the Unit.

Issue: