By Elias Bwambale
Pro Bono service is quite often considered a selfless act of providing uncompensated legal services for the public good.
In Uganda, the term Pro Bono is used to describe professional legal aid work undertaken voluntarily and without payment or at a low cost to vulnerable or underprivileged persons.
Historically, a certain segment of the legal profession felt responsible to ensure equal access to the legal system in the hope that justice would not become a concept that was simply bought and sold. In every community, a social contract is deemed to exist between lawyers and society.
Society provides an exclusive license to individuals who want to practice law, thereby offering lucrative career opportunities and in return, lawyers give something back to society - that “something” is Pro Bono service.
The service includes giving advice or providing representation to indigent persons, involving in free community legal education, involving in giving free legal advice or representation to a charitable or community organisation or to a client of such an organisation.
While many lawyers in Uganda volunteer legal services, few seem to recognise that performing Pro Bono work often yields substantial practical benefits for themselves, their organisations and the profession as a whole.
A significant number of lawyers seem to think that offering Pro Bono service is a waste of time, a strain on money and on the whole - extra work on their already full caseload, personal and family obligations. It is for that reason that I find it absolutely relevant to indulge you in an exploration of the benefits that accrue to partaking in Pro Bono service.
Good quality Pro Bono work certainly helps develop one as a lawyer and a person. It provides invaluable experience of face to face client contact, interviewing, research and drafting skills thereby enabling one to either learn a new skill or sharpen an existing one. Remarkably, a particular skill set can be sharpened to the extent that it even attracts paying clients!
For the most part, lawyers who offer Pro Bono services represent clients from more diverse backgrounds than their usual clientele. Dealing with individuals from different socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds exposes one to new perspectives on social and other cultural problems remote from their experience. This broadens a lawyer’s understanding of the clients which makes him/her better positioned to advise them.
Pro Bono experience also builds confidence for less experienced lawyers especially those working in the shadow of senior partners. By regularly doing Pro Bono work, such lawyers quickly lose any feelings of inadequacy and grow in the realisation that they can autonomously assist others with legal problems.
More so, Pro Bono service establishes relationships with community groups and board members who belong to organisations that frequently hire lawyers or are asked for lawyer referrals. Here the Pro Bono lawyer is well positioned to get that work because of a pre-existing relationship.
Pro Bono work also demonstrates good corporate citizenship by law firms, which enhances their profile and standing in their communities. What is there not to like about a person who gives back to the community?
Pro Bono service enables access to justice – a pillar of the legal profession. Noteworthy is that a significant proportion of the Ugandan population lives in abject poverty, yet the cost of skilled legal services is so high and beyond the reach of many. A lawyer who engages in this service facilitates access to justice thereby living up to the profession’s expectations.
In a nutshell, Pro Bono service benefits the entire legal profession as it improves the public’s confidence in the legal system.
The legitimacy of our legal system is largely dependent upon the meaningful participation of all citizens, which participation Pro Bono service ensures. Not only will you feel better that you helped some one less fortunate, but you will also feel better because you helped yourself.
The writer is a lawyer
Refugees in Uganda get free legal services
Vulnerable Ugandans receive free legal services
Policy on free legal service in the offing