Advocate, the Bar’s national pro bono charity, celebrates its 25th birthday in 2021. During that quarter century, countless individuals in need have benefited from the advice and representation of volunteer barristers. But the barristers themselves have also benefited in turn. Doing pro bono work not only improves access to justice, it also helps us to become better barristers.

Advocacy through Advocate

Oral advocacy is the core skill of the Bar. But in many practice areas, opportunities for juniors to get on their feet are few and far between. Commercial and Chancery cases, for example, are often thought to warrant a leader because of the large sums at stake and silks may monopolise the airtime even at routine interlocutory skirmishes.

Representing a client through Advocate (formerly known as the Bar Pro Bono Unit) is a terrific way to build advocacy experience, often against a skilled (paid) opponent. This includes trials and appellate work. One of my most satisfying forensic encounters ever involved cross-examining at a two-day trial for a pro bono client: the judge didn’t bother to wait for the re-examination before declaring that, in light of the witness’s disastrous performance, the case ought to be settled forthwith – which it did.

There are also opportunities for high quality advocacy before a High Court Judge in the Chancery Division by representing a litigant in person through the Chancery Litigant in Person Scheme (CLIPS). A similar scheme operates in the London Circuit Commercial Court.

Because you turn up in the morning and deal with the interim applications in that day’s list, there could hardly be a better test of your ability to argue a point persuasively at short notice. The subject matter is infinitely varied; my last CLIPS outing involved resisting a freezing order against a student who had, quite innocently, become ensnared in an alleged money-laundering operation.

As well as ensuring that the litigant’s case is properly articulated, you will invariably secure the judge’s gratitude for enabling the submissions to be presented in the most focused way possible.

Expanding your legal horizons – across all practice areas

Don’t assume that pro bono assistance is sought only in the ultra-high demand sectors of family, employment and immigration law. The need is acute across all practice areas. Those with specialist skills will be able to put them to good use, frequently in a novel context.

Sam Brodsky of Gray’s Inn Tax Chambers, for example, is well used to arguing restitution cases where companies seek to recover taxes that were levied in breach of EU law. He recently took on a pro bono restitution case in a rather different context: an entrepreneurial teenager had leased premises for a Chinese takeaway, but was then evicted without reason; the landlord refused to return the deposit. Sam secured a significant settlement for the client based on breach of contract and unjust enrichment: since the client was under 18, ‘minority’ was an unjust factor justifying a claim for restitution of the sum paid over.

Pro bono cases can also give you the courage to dip your toes in new legal waters. A Chancery barrister is well placed to master a consumer credit case, just as a commercial practitioner will be a good match for an unfair dismissal trial. Indeed, you may find that venturing into adjacent areas of the law will bring about a cross-fertilisation of ideas, enriching the legal arguments you devise when back working in your core practice area.

You might, understandably, wish for reassurance that you have not overlooked some procedural nicety when conducting a case in a forum with which you are less accustomed. Advocate is happy to put you in touch with a barrister in the relevant specialism who can act as a mentor and put any such concern at rest (see box).

Opening new networks

An added bonus of pro bono work is the opportunity to collaborate with others. Your first point of contact from Advocate is likely to be one of the caseworkers, a talented team who work tirelessly to find barristers willing to take on deserving cases. Their dedication will inspire you for the work ahead.

Dealing with a client who is an individual may present new challenges and rewards for those used to being instructed by faceless corporations or government departments. You may be struck by the dignity and fortitude they have shown in the most difficult of circumstances. Faced with stakes that could not be higher for them personally, pro bono clients are, in my experience, unfailingly courteous and deeply appreciative of the work you do. They may remind you why you decided to become a barrister in the first place.

Some pro bono cases may merit the involvement of a solicitor. Pro Bono Connect is a scheme that enables a barrister to request assistance from a network of 42 solicitors firms. Last year, I sought support for an Advocate client who was faced with a daunting judgment debt derived from an arbitration award. Within 24 hours, no fewer than seven City firms had offered to act. I ended up working for over a year with a wonderful team from Arnold & Porter, comprising Jane Wessel (partner), Chloë Fletcher (associate) and Lauren Blanchard (trainee). They supported the client every step of the way and were critical to the successful outcome; the experience of working alongside them was invaluable for me.

The path to silk

Not so long ago, aspiring QCs were required to declare their gross earnings for the previous three years, as though revenue were a proxy for excellence. From 2021 onwards, by contrast, the guidance for QC applicants expressly states that pro bono cases may be included among the 12 important cases if they provide good evidence of the required competencies. Since the competencies concern understanding the law, oral and written advocacy, working with others, and diversity, pro bono cases will often provide particularly powerful evidence – precisely because they show you grappling with legal issues outside your comfort zone, advocacy before an unfamiliar tribunal, or dealing with a client whose specific needs and circumstances differ from the usual run of paying clients.

Using our legal expertise to help those in need is the right thing to do. But the rewards, in personal satisfaction and professional enhancement, are very real. 

Collaborate: a case-based mentoring scheme
Collaborate aims to pair senior barristers willing to share their expertise with juniors who may be nervous about taking on pro bono. Mentoring adds immense value to the mentee and can offer the personal satisfaction of helping a junior colleague, along with other career benefits, such as providing evidence of leadership for a QC application form. There are various ways for senior barristers to mentor:
  • Offer support for case related queries. This simply requires being on the end of the phone once a month. Advocate will link up a panel member and a mentor when the panel member has a specific query about the pro bono case they are working on with Advocate.
  • Choosing to work on an Advocate case as pro bono co-counsel alongside a junior or young barrister.
  • Mentoring for secondary specialisation. The mentor would work within their specialist area, helping a panel member taking on a case in their area of law for the first time.
Advocate will compile a panel of willing mentors and junior barristers can register their interest in getting help when they take on a case. Find out more and sign up at: