In this blog, recent University of Bristol Law School graduate, Georgie Lockwood highlights her experience of providing legal pro bono advice in welfare benefits, for the wider Bristol community at the Bristol Law Centre. Find out more about her experience and how it developed some vital transferable skills for the future as we mark National Pro Bono Week.
At the start of my MA in Law in September 2020, I was searching for legal volunteering opportunities and came across the Legal Advocacy Support Project (LASP). LASP is a project run by the Welfare Benefits team at Bristol Law Centre which recruits volunteer law students and graduates to help prepare cases for appeal to the First-tier Social Security and Child Support Tribunal.
I was drawn to Bristol Law Centre, an organisation providing free legal advice to people in the local community. I strongly believe in providing access to justice to those who can’t afford it, and this is the Law Centre’s mission.
The Welfare Benefits team at Bristol Law Centre challenges decisions made by the Government Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) about individuals’ benefits. LASP focuses primarily on Personal Independence Payment (PIP) cases. PIP is a benefit designed to support individuals with mental and physical health problems, long term illnesses or disabilities.
PIP is awarded via a points-based system: there are different rates of benefit, and the more points awarded, the higher the rate of entitlement. If a claimant is unhappy with the award they’ve been given, they can appeal to the independent Tribunal; this is where we come in.
LASP was a great opportunity to learn more about an interesting area of law and get an insight into alternative career paths beyond commercial law (which was the only route into law I was aware of!). I also participated in other extracurricular activities and joined societies at university to explore what I wanted out of a career.
I was a committee member of the Environmental and Energy Law Society, for which I helped plan and arrange a number of discussion groups and events in collaboration with charities. Through this, I learnt about social and environmental sustainability, and how law and policy can be used to help people on a local and global scale. I also went to events organised by the Pro Bono society, and attended talks about commercial law firms’ pro bono practices.
“By the time graduation came around, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in pro bono or charity work.”
Following my MA in Law, I was fortunate enough to be successful in my application for Welfare Benefits Caseworker. I am now responsible for accepting referrals and managing all casework in relation to my clients’ appeals. This includes obtaining their medical records under data protection regulations, preparing legal submissions, writing witness statements and representing clients at Tribunal.
I’m also responsible for recruiting and training volunteers, supporting them with submission writing and overseeing all aspects of their casework.
“This role has provided me with the opportunity to develop my advocacy skills, build trusting professional relationships with clients, and learn about this relatively new and challenging area of law. The most rewarding thing about my job is seeing the positive impact a successful appeal has on my clients’ lives.”
The money they are awarded makes a huge difference to their ability to maintain a reasonable standard of living.
I have gone through the LASP application process and recruited students for the role of Advocacy Volunteer, which has given me an insight into what experience and characteristics make a successful candidate for pro bono and charity work. Here is what I would recommend if you are considering roles in this sector.
- See what fundraising or volunteering opportunities are available to you at university; not only does this show your desire to help others, it gives you important transferable skills. Throughout the summer of 2020, I volunteered at North Bristol Foodbank and met many people who faced similar difficulties to the Law Centre’s clients. This meant I had experience approaching conversations around difficult and sensitive topics.
- Show attention to detail in your written applications: proof read, proof read and proof read again! A key part of the role of Advocacy Volunteer is writing legal submissions, and in many roles legal writing will be required. Showing your accuracy, clarity of communication and research skills is crucial.
- Most importantly, show a genuine desire to help vulnerable people. Demonstrate empathy and compassion, research the organisations you are interested in working for, and develop an understanding of the services offered and how they benefit the community.
With this sector facing challenges in light of reduced funding, government cuts and the cost of living crisis, there is a need for new talented and passionate individuals now more than ever.
Find out more about pro bono work within the University of Bristol Law School, through our Law Clinic, which provides students with the chance to gain a solid experience of law in practice by offering free legal advice and support to members of the public under the supervision of Law School Staff.
As well as our Human Rights Law Clinic, which sees students play a practical role in the drive to make social justice a reality for all. Integrated into the work of the Human Rights Implementation Centre students acquire knowledge and experience in international human rights law and practice.