Pro Bono is a volunteering society run by the University of Nottingham Students’ Union. Three current students talk us through their experiences of volunteering in various sectors and why you should give it a go.
Pro Bono across the Pond
Reiss Morrison – Third year Law student.
Hello, England! I’m a law student at the University of Nottingham spending my third year at the University of Texas at Austin (UT). I have been involved with the Pro Bono Society since I started University, serving as a volunteer in my first year, a Committee member in my second, and currently as a member on the other side of the world. Whilst in Texas I have experienced a whole different side to pro bono work.
I have broken down the pro bono I have encountered whilst on my year abroad into three ‘categories’: death row work, volunteering at the University of Texas Elementary School, and other general pro bono projects UT offers. There is no student-run pro bono society here but many professional pro bono organisations.
“we shadow amazing attorneys specialising in capital punishment law and process”
Unlike other year abroad destinations offered to Nottingham students, UT offers the chance to work on capital punishment cases through the Capital Punishment Clinic. The Clinic is a law office, but also a class which students can choose to take, and serves indigent clients on a pro bono basis at different stages of the capital punishment process, whether at the trial, appellate or postconviction stage of their case.
I and a few other students from the Universities of Nottingham and Edinburgh were fortunate enough to be enrolled into the Clinic this year, and our work is really diverse; we shadow amazing attorneys specialising in capital punishment law and process, conducting research, strategizing, drafting documents and a lot more. One of the most humbling and important aspects of the Clinic is visiting death row itself to speak with the clients. Unsurprisingly, I had never been to death row before, but it was an unforgettable experience I never thought I would have, and it was a privilege to interact with the clients.
Working on death row cases is incredibly meaningful pro bono work which is hard if not impossible to experience in the UK. Yet, it has a lot of similarities to Unbarred back in the UK. For example, being emotional and time-pressured work requiring an open mind, passion and a commitment to vindicating the rights of indigent inmates. The stakes are obviously a lot higher with death row work, but the basic spirit of pro bono is common.
The University of Texas Elementary School
Before coming to Austin, I found the UT Elementary School online and saw they were taking volunteers. I visited the school with some Nottingham students and have mentored three students (two from fourth grade and one from third grade), visiting every week to have lunch with them, play games and sometimes just chat. It’s a wonderful way to do pro bono work; the school is so flexible and welcoming, the students are polite, mature and smart, it is genuinely one of the highlights of my week.
Having managed Project Aspire in my second year it has also been educative seeing how schooling is done in the US. Besides naming things differently (“fourth grade”, “spring break”, and so on) the students are also a lot different to primary school children back home. The Elementary School students are generally more extrovert compared to a lot of the students I taught with Aspire last year.
“I saw the Unbarred project as a very unique opportunity to help many young people who felt like they had lost control over their own lives.”
There are many ways to volunteer with the UT Elementary School, not just mentoring students at lunch. For example, volunteers are often needed to assist with book sales, and I have been asked about possibly teaching a fifth-grade class (like Aspire).
Other Texan Pro Bono Opportunities
Finally, I thought it would be worthwhile to mention some of the other pro bono opportunities UT offers, some of which I have experienced and others I have simply heard about from friends. UT has an extensive list of pro bono projects on its website, updated regularly so students can look and plan the events they’d like to get involved with.
To give some examples, I worked in the Cancer Law Clinic witnessing and proof-reading documents for cancer patients. My friends have also worked on criminal record expunction projects, helping individuals who need assistance to clear their past convictions. Other projects include the ironically-named “Street Law High School Project” where volunteers can help teach legal topics, including Constitutional Law, to high school students, and the “Texas Law Youth Court” where volunteers mentor middle school students to prevent future criminality.
There are similarities to the work the Pro Bono Society does, but there are also huge differences, partially due to the existing laws and culture on this side of the pond.
Maria Milova – Final year Politics and International Relations Student
This past semester I got the opportunity to go on a trip to HMYOI Werrington through the Unbarred project. As a Politics student who has always been interested in learning more about the law and more specifically the criminal justice system, I saw the Unbarred project as a very unique opportunity to help many young people who felt like they had lost control over their own lives.
“The few hours I spent talking to some of the prisoners made me understand how meaningful the project is and what a great impact a short presentation can make.”
The presentation we gave informed the young offenders, who were all between 15 and 18 years old, of prospects after release and more specifically how and where they could gain employment upon leaving prison. Most importantly, the presentations provided the offenders with legal information about disclosure periods as stated under the Rehabilitation Act.
In preparing for and attending the trip, it became clear to me what a great difference such projects make in these people’s career prospects and futures. This is especially true for young offenders, as many of them are completely unaware of the obligatory disclosure periods and are often sent back to prison just months after release for re-offending. For these reasons, I feel proud to have been a part of an organisation that ensures these young people are in the best position to approach society and the employment market upon release.
The few hours I spent talking to some of the prisoners made me understand how meaningful the project is and what a great impact a short presentation can make. While the trip itself was a challenging experience, it was also very eye-opening; I learnt a lot about how to approach unexpected situations and how to handle myself while thinking on my feet. We left the prison knowing that our visit had allowed at least a few of the young men feel a bit more confident, knowledgeable and positive about life and employment after release.
The Prison and Primary School Systems
Chloe Orvis – Second year Sociology and Criminology student
Volunteering for Pro Bono has provided so many opportunities, which are incredibly difficult to access elsewhere, and which provide valuable experience for any degree or future occupation.
“Unbarred provides support throughout every stage, giving passionate students the courage and the platform to inspire positive change”
Unbarred is a programme operated by Pro Bono which seeks to reduce the barriers faced by offenders when they leave prison. I’m involved in visiting several prisons, including those for young offenders, and educating the offenders about their rights, realistic choices and responsibilities when they leave prison and enter society. The visits are informal, completely planned and organised by the Unbarred leaders and supported at every stage.
We always meet prior to the visit to discuss the material so volunteers are never in the awkward position of knowing nothing about the content of the visit and always have plenty of time to ask questions. During the visit, we conduct talks about disclosure to future employers, information regarding how to access education, contact details for charities and support networks, as well as workshops to improve interview skills – integral yet often neglected aspects of rehabilitation.
“If you are passionate about changing something, please don’t sit back and assume someone else will do it.”
Providing encouragement to see their experience in custody as a process of growth and learning and offering optimistic yet realistic guidance is always key to the visits, which is undoubtedly my favourite aspect of the programme. Unbarred provides support throughout every stage, giving passionate students the courage and the platform to inspire positive change for the most vulnerable and stigmatised in society. For those reasons, it is something I would highly recommend to anyone with an interest in rehabilitation.
Pro Bono also run a programme called Aspire which, like Unbarred, I was keen to participate in. It involves visiting primary schools and educating children about key topics which are often neglected or excluded by the national curriculum, including how voting works and the meaning and impact of discrimination. I worked as part of a team to teach a class about the history of women’s rights through problem solving activities and team games. It was great to not only gain experience of teaching young children, but to also aid their understanding of crucial topics. Training, including safeguarding and DBS, is fully funded and supported, with project leaders present at every stage.
I would highly recommend volunteering for Pro Bono to anyone, on any degree programme. Don’t feel you have to be a law student – I’m not and, if anything, the programme leaders have always welcomed that. Pro Bono have a wide range of projects ran by truly amazing students with the best intentions. The experiences, knowledge, friends and confidence I have gained is incredible and unlike any other programme or opportunity. If you are passionate about changing something, please don’t sit back and assume someone else will do it.
Reiss Morrison, Maria Milova and Chloe Orvis