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Pro bono: Educating for social change

Every Issue

Cite as: December 2010 84(12) LIJ, p.74

Law schools need to give more thought to equipping their students with the skills for social change lawyering.

At present, much of the legal profession’s significant pro bono effort focuses on providing access to justice for poor individuals. This is a highly valuable contribution, because it enables the protection of individual rights and maintains the principle of equality before the law.

Fewer pro bono lawyers engage in what is called “social change lawyering”.

This approach aims to shift one or more of the underlying causes of an entrenched social problem, such as the lack of affordable housing. There is real potential for pro bono lawyers to become more involved in social change lawyering, especially in collaboration with community legal centres.

One of the challenges for the legal profession in using a social change model to structure its pro bono efforts is that most lawyers do not have the knowledge or skills to do this work.

Law schools already play an important part in shaping law students’ attitudes to pro bono lawyering. However, law schools could do more to assist students to acquire the capabilities needed for social change lawyering.

Skills and attributes for social change lawyering

Lawyers working on social change projects need more than skills in legal research, preparing advices for individual clients, drafting court documents and dispute resolution. It is much more likely that lawyers who are involved in social change projects will concentrate on reforming prevailing laws, and governmental or organisational policies or practices.

Therefore, to be effective in this work, the lawyer needs to understand, and be involved in, the processes for developing government policy and creating legislation.

These projects may require the lawyer to be working in the political domain, advocating and lobbying for policy change.

Often, the lawyer will bring just one form of professional expertise to a multi-disciplinary team that could include economists, statisticians, health professionals and welfare sector workers.

Law school curricula

Many law schools do not promote this form of lawyering to students. This has two effects: law graduates have little awareness of this model of lawyering and they lack the skills to engage in social change lawyering.

There are many steps that law schools could take to equip lawyers to undertake this work as part of their pro bono contribution (or as their full-time career in the law). Law schools could develop elective subjects in public interest law, with a focus on social change lawyering, and offer clinical legal education opportunities.

One change, which would improve the legal education of all law students and support those who wanted to take a social change approach in their pro bono legal work, relates to increasing the focus across the entire curriculum on legislation and legislation-making.

At present, case law and the common law method are the centrepiece of most subjects in the law school curriculum. Statutes and legislation-making are relegated to a very minor place in most law degrees.

It is, of course, essential that law students graduate knowing how to read cases and understanding the common law method of reasoning. However, despite the centrality of legislation in Australian law, we spend comparatively little time teaching students about legislation, the legislation-making process and the rules of statutory interpretation.

A reshaping of the curriculum to increase the focus on legislation and “legislative lawyering” would be one, among many, contributions that law schools could make to enhance the pro bono capacity and culture of the legal profession.

PAULA O’BRIEN is a lecturer at La Trobe Law School.

Looking to help

To help lawyers and firms become involved in pro bono work other than legal services, the LIJ profiles a community group and its needs each month.

Name of group: Ovarian Cancer Australia

Contact person: Annabel Davies


Address: Level 2, 210 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne

Ovarian Cancer Australia

Ovarian Cancer Australia is a national not-for-profit organisation providing support and advocacy for people affected by ovarian cancer. It is the peak body for ovarian cancer awareness and prevention.

Its programs are focused on the important areas of:

  • promoting awareness of ovarian cancer and its symptoms in the community, giving Australian women and their healthcare providers a better understanding of the early signs of ovarian cancer;
  • providing support networks and resources to women, their families and friends affected by ovarian cancer; and
  • advocating with medical professionals, government and the media for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Each year in February, it runs a national Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month of events, media campaigns and community activities to highlight the symptoms of ovarian cancer and to promote Ovarian Cancer Australia programs.

Current needs of group

Committee members and sponsorship consultant. Apply at


See goodcompany at for more information on this and other skilled volunteering opportunities. For more information about volunteering in general, see also:



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