Be the change you want to see

August 2013

Cover Story, 4STUDENTS, Canadian Lawyer Magazine

Heather Gardiner
August 2013

There was a time when most lawyers probably wouldn’t have dreamed of offering their services for free. But now the justice system is increasingly out of reach for many low- to mid-income people, soon-to-be lawyers are learning about the importance of access to justice early on. They are told one way to help with the problem is by volunteering their legal skills, and so are encouraged to get involved in their communities and give back early in their careers.

Some law schools are taking this even further by requiring students to complete a certain number of public interest hours in order to graduate. Osgoode Hall Law School implemented a 40-hour requirement in 2006 and is the only law school in Canada to require students to do community legal work in order to get their law degrees.


In the United States, mandatory pro bono programs already exist at more than 20 law schools, including Harvard Law School and Columbia Law School. The University of Pennsylvania Law School was considered a trailblazer when it established its 70-hour pro bono requirement in 1989,  the first national law school to do so.


Wela Quan, a Canadian law school grad and an associate in Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP’s New York office, says the New York bar’s requirement will be good for U.S. law graduates since students are not required to complete articling there. Graduates are asked to pick an area of practice to work in without having done any practical legal training, she adds. Pro bono work “is an integral part of legal education because what you learn on the books and what you learn while you’re studying is so different from the actual practice, and you are missing a very, very big chunk coming out of law school not having done any actual legal work,” she says.

Quan sees the growing desire among students to do pro bono work as an overall shift taking place in the profession. “[B]y influencing and affecting students coming out of law school, future generations of lawyers will be more attuned and have more of a focus on [pro bono]. I think already the younger generation of students and people coming out of law school are very sensitive to that.”

At this year’s annual PBSC national training conference in Toronto in May, Matt Cohen, director of litigation projects at Pro Bono Law Ontario, said in order for pro bono work to be truly embraced law firms need to get onside, which is happening but at a slow pace. If students really get on board and do more public interest work, they can help create the change that is needed in the profession. 

The full article is available here.