There is little need to rehearse the reasons behind why engaging in pro bono work is an excellent way of giving back to the community, through the utilisation of our very special skill set (as lawyers) to benefit usually those most in need of assistance and the protection of the law. My case for engaging in pro bono work today is focused slightly differently, however, and it is to consider how doing pro bono work might actually be good for oneself too, for one’s own mental wellbeing.
So, what is wellbeing? Well, unless you have made a concerted effort to completely avoid popular culture in the past few years, you will undoubtedly be familiar if not au fait with this concept of “wellbeing”, where it is difficult to miss the innumerable blogs, articles, self-help books, television programmes focused on it. If you’ve missed it, wellbeing means different things to different people though, in general terms, it is all about how we feel and think about ourselves, the relationships that we have with others and our individual sense of purpose, belonging and meaning in the world. In a Law Society article last year written for World Mental Health Day, it was suggested that we could do five things to improve our wellbeing: connect, be active, keep learning, give to others and be mindful.
So, why then, one might reasonably question, would adding additional work for myself by agreeing to do some form of pro bono activity be good for my mental health? Well, as we have identified above, giving to others and to challenge oneself/keep learning are two of the key factors in nourishing or developing a happy, centred and “well” being. I believe that pro bono work firmly ticks both of those boxes, where engaging in pro bono activity is the giving to others of one’s time to provide free of charge advice, sometimes in slightly unfamiliar areas of law and policy and with challenging clients, requiring one to continuously keep learning.
Every time I finish work at the pro bono legal advice clinic I volunteer at, Centre 70 ,I am filled with a sense of achievement and purpose. Though sometimes mixed with feelings of frustration at the dismantling of the welfare state and the prohibitions on access to justice that this creates and perpetuates(!), having assisted (or attempted to assist) individuals who nearly always are in one way or another vulnerable and who have no other avenue for accessing justice is extremely rewarding. Additionally, attending this legal advice clinic on a Monday evening, where I have no idea what advice my client will be seeking, nor the type of individual that my client may be, and where you have a very limited time to deal with each client and their issues has necessitated me to learn on the job. It is a challenge, though an invigorating one. Recently I was speaking with a barrister who told me that the pro bono case that he was working on was by far the most important case to him and the one he cared about the most, as it made him feel like he was using his skills to really help someone and that it was rewarding. I have had similar conversations with many other people choosing to partake in this work.
So, if you are thinking that you might quite like to do some volunteering at a legal advice centre or joining your firm’s pro bono clinic but that you are too busy to do it now: maybe think again. Would making some time for this actually make you feel less stressed and busy? By taking some time out of work to meet new people, challenge yourself and give to others your time and sought after skills, you might actually feel better and, possibly counter-intuitively, less stressed and busy.
As lawyers our jobs are highly stressful; time pressured; must be, by necessity, a high priority in our lives and can often require long working hours; it is important to remember in all of this that looking after one’s mental and physical health must also be a priority and not a secondary consideration. The point is not to put extra pressure on oneself to try and do more and achieve more, but to recognise that engaging in different activities outside of work can actually be good for you and may actually improve one’s own ability to cope with the extremely busy and stressful job you have. If that activity comes in the form of using your legal skills to help others, which only lawyers can do, then why not?