The human case for pro bono

Thanks to Andrew Polandeze for the photo

The humble plastic shopping bag is not the first tool of the trade that a young lawyer is introduced to at Law School. Nor is it the second or the third. In fact, it is doesn’t feature anywhere on the formal curriculum. Some lawyers will go their whole career without encountering one professionally.

And yet for some, the plastic bag is an absolute necessity. It serves as a case file and an address book; it is a calendar reminder and a financial manager. It is a reason to get up in the morning, a companion through the long nights and a light at the end of the tunnel.

Pro bono legal work offers lawyers space to push the scope of the law to its limits. Freed from the usual constraints of billing targets and six minute units, the relationship between a pro bono lawyer and their client is unique.

Everything is heightened. There are tangible, basic needs at stake — hunger, somewhere to live, a parent’s relationship with their child.

The constraints that exist are those that define the client’s life. Things that can usually be taken for granted, are off the table. There are no contingency funds, there is no network of people to rely on, there are no bargaining chips.

In a context in which a plastic bag can be a case file, a lawyer is pushed to understand legal problems and solutions in a whole new way. This is the coalface of social justice — it is where the theory of law, and the neat, logical rules from the statute books are brought face to face with the messy chaos of the people they govern.

A pro bono lawyer must get to the sinews of the law — the values on which it is built, to the core of what democracy really means. This is where the hardest choices are made, where the essential truth lies.

It is not easy. It can’t be looked up in a White Book.

Sometimes it won’t work.

For the client, defeat is not an option — there is too much at stake — if the legal process does not help them, they must go on enduring.

For the pro bono lawyer too, there is skin in the game. It demands that they draw deep on their personal resources; forces them to confront their own sense of how the world works; challenges their beliefs about what is right and what is wrong.

It is here, in run down village halls, back rooms of libraries, and battered law centre offices that we share an experience of what the law really is. And where there is a rare opportunity to ensure it represents the best of us.


Strange Alchemy is a project exploring the hinterland of the law in search of gold.

The Gateways, Portals and Intermediaries collection of writing is for those curious about the practicalities of access to justice and its disenfranchisements.

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