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Making the most of volunteers

Suffolk Law Centre has a small team of paid staff, but support from an army of local volunteer lawyers means it can offer the widest range of services to clients. Audrey Ludwig explains its approach

Suffolk Law Centre has only 10 paid staff, mostly part time, and 10 times that number of volunteers – luckily not all in the building at the same time.

We are a brand new law centre, but one which grew out of Ipswich & Suffolk Council for Racial Equality, which has a proud 40 year history of serving the people of Suffolk and with nationally recognised expertise in discrimination law. Like every other not for profit agency, our resources are highly constrained. Without our committed and carefully supervised volunteers, we would only be able to advise a fraction of the clients we are currently able to help.

So how do we do it? Many advice agencies and charities slightly struggle to know how to make best use of volunteers. Some will privately admit that they only take them on because they do not like to see enthusiasm going to waste, or because want to build good relationships with potential funders.

Over the years, ISCRE has developed a model which maximises the benefit to us and our clients, while minimising the amount of handholding and management time that we have to devote to the volunteers, even though there are such a large number of them. Our priority is always to the clients. We recognise the benefits of offering law students volunteering opportunities, particularly those who are working class, BAME, or have fewer contacts to get relevant real life legal experience. However, if our volunteers didn’t provide substantial benefits for clients, we wouldn’t have take them on.

Our first task with all volunteers here is to induct and teach them how to use our office systems (and that they should write down verbal instructions from staff). It is not always plain sailing. A low point was teaching one student that coffee for clients was made with hot water from the kettle, not water from the tap. And I do confess to the occasional heart sink when, while super busy and focussed on clients, I am confronted with another brand new law student, who announcing they want to be a human rights lawyer, while baulking at being asked to help with more mundane tasks like filing and photocopying.

The key to ensuring volunteers are an asset is the mix and the expectation. Most of our volunteers are not students. About 70 are legal professionals from local solicitors firms and chambers. At the Law Works Pro Bono awards, when we were shortlisted for best collaboration, the compere commented that there cannot be a law firm in Suffolk who isn’t involved in our service. He was not far off. Our other 30 volunteers are a made up of local people, members, law students and retired lawyers.

Our law clinics are a mix of specialist and general. The specialist ones including family, employment, personal injury, housing, and immigration (accredited by OISC)

We have a full-time triage officer, Sumayiah. She organises the pro bono rota; takes details of the client cases, get copies of relevant documents, allocates them to clinics and appointments. The papers are sent to the volunteer lawyers a week in advance, both to do a conflict check and research the issue. The lawyer then comes to the subsequent half hour appointment, armed with some answers and suggestions for next steps. Occasionally at their own discretion the lawyer will draft a legal letter or other document. We then just ask them to do a quick attendance note of the advice given.

Our system minimises the work and time that the volunteer lawyers have to spend on administration. What our volunteers are able to provide is in no way a substitute for a proper legal aid system, but their advice is researched and useful to the clients. We also keep the demands on our volunteers manageable. Volunteer lawyers are scheduled to attend only a few times a year, which means we do not get much turnover, which is a great benefit to us. The exception is trainees, if they relocate when they qualify.

After some partner firms found their insurers would not cover their staff doing pro bono work at our offices, we started to provide the professional indemnity insurance for volunteers. This costs several thousand pounds each year, but does tend to focus our minds on ensuring we use their time and expertise as effectively as possible.

A large part work of Sumaiyah’s work is chasing clients to ensure they attend and rescheduling appointments if the lawyers get stuck in court or have forgotten that they have booked time off on the relevant day. Making sure we fill up all the appointment slots is particularly important because we have waiting lists up to four months in popular areas like family and immigration. We do try to look after our professional volunteers because they come to us at the end of a busy working day and have knowledge and skills our clients could not otherwise access.

We also run a specialist discrimination casework and advocacy project and a form filling clinic for child contact matters. Next month (May 2018), we will be starting a 12-month pilot for a helpdesk at Ipswich Magistrates court for family law matters. This will be run by qualified family lawyer volunteers, and we’ve secured funding from LIPSS to pay for one of them to coordinate it part time.

Another benefit of being long established in this area is that we have been able to develop good working relationships with the Universities of Essex, Suffolk, and East Anglia; and take students from Essex Law School, as a part of their law degree. However, law students need more supervision than legal professionals, so we can only take a few, as we do not have a volunteer coordinator post. Currently, we see law student volunteer roles as supporting the legal professionals, rather than giving advice. They take notes, photocopy, do research, draft letters, plan and draft public legal education, and help with evaluation. I have reservations about the competency and emotional resilience of many students to take instructions and give legal advice, to vulnerable clients, even under supervision. After all, that is why professional lawyers do training contracts and pupillages.

After some time, students do become useful, and some are amazing. It is then both galling and also a great source of pride when one of my longer term student volunteers goes off to Bar school or a training contract. One of our former volunteers, Joanna Bennett, is now an actions against police lawyer at Hodge Jones and Allen. When Joanna spoke impressively at our last Annual General Meeting, I mentally took all the credit for the dedicated and expert lawyer she has become.

 

 

 

 

 

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