Advancing human rights and equality
through public interest litigation

Email  Twitter

Five Lessons from Pro Bono Week 2020 in Northern Ireland

Having conversations with colleagues now has to be digitised and formalised in a Zoom schedule. The impromptu chat about a unique case or interesting point of law has practically disappeared.

So, what does that mean for a legal professional at the start of their career?

Could pro bono legal work (and the diverse opportunities it can offer) provide a solution? And how will COVID change the way the lawyers of the future are trained?

These were some of the questions posed during our 2020 UK Pro Bono Week panel discussion (co-hosted by the Law Society of Northern Ireland) on 4 November.

Chaired by solicitor Sinead Mulhern, the panel included Jenny Cunningham (co-chair of the Young Bar Association NI), Nicholas Lennon (Bar of NI’s Pro Bono Unit), Dr Esther McGuinness (founder/co-director of Ulster University’s Law Clinic) and Frederick Reilly (NI Young Solicitors’ Association).

If you missed the webinar, here are five of the key lessons shared by our panel:

  1. COVID has been a driver for pro bono work – not just in reminding society of existing disparities or exposing new inequalities, but also the lack of legal work during the pandemic also motivated legal professionals to take on pro bono matters for the first time.
  2. Very often, pro bono cases are the most thought-provoking and memorable – they ‘stay with you’.
  3. Pro bono doesn’t have to be complicated, there can be lots of small pieces of distinct, discreet pro bono work that can collectively add up to more than the sum of its parts.
  4. One of our speakers (Jenny Cunningham) summarised the particular benefits of pro bono for newly qualified members of the legal profession: it’s refreshing and satisfying work, it opens you up to new legal networks, it gives you the opportunity to grapple with new areas of law.
  5. Exposing law students to pro bono early in their legal training allows lawyers of the future to become adept at solving real life problems in real-time. Dr. Esther McGuinness made this point when sharing stats from the University of Ulster’s award-winning Law Clinic: it has provided over £1million-worth of student-led free legal advice & representation since 2013; this amounts to over 9600 hours of pro bono advice.

Watch: the full panel discussion here. 

And there was also a major lesson for the PILS Project in the webinar too:

It looks like there is enthusiasm for pro bono out there – but also a desire for more information about how to get involved. A poll of our audience at the start of the webinar showed that almost two-thirds of the attendees (62%) hadn’t previously engaged in any pro bono work. At the end of the session, all expressed either a desire to get involved or learn more.

Naturally, PILS didn’t want to waste any time addressing this question. Read more about how we immediately followed up with our next webinarThe Truth about Pro Bono.


If you’re reading this and are a solicitor or barrister in Northern Ireland who would like to share your expertise with local human rights organisations, then get in touch with the PILS Project team. We’d like to tell you more about joining the PILS Pro Bono Register