In Conversation With: Monica Taylor and Jennifer Gibbons of the UQ Pro Bono Centre

Interviewed by Chloë Bennett

For law students, gaining exposure to the legal industry is an invaluable experience.  The UQ Pro Bono Centre, part of the T.C. Beirne School of Law, recognises this need and helps to bridge the gap between studies and practical experience by promoting the value of pro bono work.  The vast opportunities offered by the centre foster the importance of pro bono whilst simultaneously developing the skills necessary for a legal career. Chloë Bennett caught up with the Centre Director, Monica Taylor, and the Centre's Senior Administration Officer Jennifer Gibbons to discuss the importance of pro bono work. 

Chloë: So tell us a bit about yourselves…

Monica: I did an Arts/Law degree at UQ many years ago and commenced practice in a large firm.  After about three years I side-stepped into community legal work and was the first full-time coordinator for the Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic at QPILCH. I did a lot of pro bono work when I was a law student.  For me, it was only a matter of time before I tried to find paid work in the legal assistance sector. After QPILCH I went overseas, started a family, did some overseas pro bono work, and ended up coming back to UQ to head up the Centre.

Jennifer: I’ve been in the law school for 12 years. When I started at UQ I administrated the PLT program that UQ used to offer. When PLEAT was cancelled I transferred to administering the law post-grad programs, overseeing LLMs and, initially, the PHDs. I stayed with this for ten years and then was given the opportunity to assist Monica in the Centre part time to support her expansion of the Centre’s activities. I am now in the Centre full-time and I love the work. I enjoy the connection with undergrad students. I’m amazed by what we’re all achieving together and amazed by the students and the work that they do.

Chloë: Can you give us some background about the Centre?

Monica: The Centre started in 2009.  It was a vision of law school academics, in particular Assoc. Prof. Tamara Walsh, who is still actively involved. Tamara did an extraordinary amount of ground work to establish the Centre within the University structure and she also established the Manning St Project. That is where law students attend Caxton Legal Centre and work on law reform and policy research for different agencies, over a full semester.  Paul O’Shea (who has since left the school) started the first clinical law elective, and since that time the Clinical Legal Education (CLE) Program has significantly expanded.  It’s now one of the strongest electives within the law school.

The Pro Bono Roster has always been the Centre’s ‘engine room’ – it is a database where students register their interest. They’re not compelled to do pro bono work or any of the activities posted. It’s only if they have the skills, interest and time that they may choose to apply for the relevant task.

The most recent program within the Centre was established in 2011; the High Schools Program. Assoc. Prof. Peter Billings was the architect of this initiative, where students design and deliver lessons on asylum/refugee law and international humanitarian law to high school students.  Most recently, Dr Francesca Bartlett started a new HSP program focusing on domestic violence and the law.

Chloë: How many students are there on the Roster?

Jennifer: We suspect it’s around 450. We have just migrated over to a StudentHub system which will allow new students to the roster to look at archival opportunities as examples of opportunities that may arise. I’m also finalising a handbook for students on the roster which will act as a guide throughout their pro bono commitments as well as include such mundane things as applying for travel reimbursement, hints and tips for research, publishing, intellectual property and so on.

Monica: Roughly about a third of the entire law cohort is on the roster. 

Chloë: One of the publications the Manning Street Project has produced is the Pro Bono Values Project. One of the interesting findings in that Report was that the moral obligation to perform pro bono was as important as the professional drive to do it. Given the current job market, and the volume of law students in Australia, do you think that going forward the moral or professional drive will be more important? Are we nurturing the professional obligation?

Monica: I think law schools really have a fundamental obligation to socialise students in the direction of public interest law practice, but you can’t mandate morality and you can’t mandate pro bono work. What the Pro Bono Values Project suggests is that if you make people do it, or if you over-coordinate the delivery of pro bono work –– it may impact negatively on the quality of work produced.

There’s a question of whether law schools ought to simply expose students to public interest legal work through clinical legal education (where they gain academic credit) or in the pro bono tradition? At UQ we have opted for both and there is curricular synergy between the two. The other thing we need to be mindful of when designing pro bono activities is that students already have tremendous demands on their time, particularly if they have jobs or are raising a family.

Jennifer: I think there are also a number of students who lose their way by second year. They’ve become so bogged down in GPAs and competitiveness, and quite often joining the roster helps them re-gain motivation. It can be quite illuminating to realise they do have other options within the profession and can make a difference. I think while the obligations and the moral aspects of the law school and the law profession are important, the feeling of contribution and gaining a new direction in your degree can make true pro bono service really valuable to the individual.

Chloë: It’s the long-running joke in law school that people who started their degrees to make a difference are dissuaded from this idea through their degrees. Commercial law firms also have a monopoly over advertising and sponsorship within the law school, and it can feel like they are the only viable career path for a young lawyer. Do you think there’s more that can be done to actively encourage students to pursue social-justice oriented roles in the profession? Or does that drive to help people come from a more personal place?

Monica: There are many law students and graduates.  The legal assistance sector is underfunded and is set to receive a 30% cut from June 2017, and there’s huge unmet legal need.  As one lawyer has described it, community legal centres are ‘stretched to breaking point’ and ordinary people go without having their legal needs addressed.  What we have then, is market distortion and a problem with few career pathways into the CLC sector despite a strong supply of new lawyers who want to work in the public interest.  Greater funding for the sector would naturally open more pathways into jobs and that would go some way to go towards aligning the job market.  The solution is not about more people doing pro bono work for nothing, it’s about stimulating and sustaining long-term employment in the legal assistance sector.

Jennifer: And that’s about funding.

Monica: Yes, and I see that as a part of the role of government, and also to a lesser extent the role of individual or institutional philanthropy, but fundamentally, government has a responsibility to fund legal assistance services .

Chloë: The PBC is very unique in terms of law schools in Australia. While other universities now offer clinical placement programs, there’s not really another internal driver of pro bono in another law school like the one we have at TCB. Why do you think no one else has adopted this structure and why do you think there’s an advantage to it?

Monica: There are many student-led clubs that focus on pro bono in universities in other parts of the world. Canada has an organisation which facilities student pro bono across the country. Closer to home, Bond University has an on-campus pro bono club. 

Our Head of School has seen the value of student and community engagement and the role of the Centre as a vehicle for the school to partner with the community legal sector.  Prof. Derrington’s vision and also that of her predecessors, has allowed the Centre to come into existence and for it to grow.  There have been numerous leadership champions in the law school who have consistently backed the Centre.

Jennifer: They haven’t just backed it - they have encouraged and fostered it by firstly funding a dedicated director and then later an administrator.  What it all boils down to is that UQ students are lucky to have this unique opportunity in such a structured way.

Chloë: While the Values Report didn’t really go into it in depth, there was some discussion about making pro bono mandatory. Do you think that there’s any benefit in making pro bono mandatory for students? Or, for example, they have to do a certain number of hours, or a placement like in health or education degrees, or do Roster activity before they graduate?

Monica: I don’t believe in mandating pro bono. There are the equity issues you can’t ignore. There’s also the plain fact that not everyone studying a law degree has their sights set on legal practice and we need to have flexibility to accommodate people who are studying law as a general degree. Most students don’t want to close the door to practice but there are some students who have no aspiration to become a lawyer.  

There are overseas examples of mandatory student pro bono – the New York Bar Association has a requirement that students must complete 50 hours of pro bono work before they can be admitted. My other view is that we need to be really careful about promising everything for nothing and using students as unpaid labour – you need to provide opportunities, but not expect it of them. By all means inspire students through clinic and other elective offerings and by creating interesting and meaningful pro bono work – but there’s a line in the sand for me between inspiration and making it mandatory.

Jennifer: If a student is trying to support themselves or a family you can’t expect them to do pro bono. One shoe doesn’t fit all. Further, we don’t want reluctant help – perhaps putting at issue the quality of the help that people are giving? The beauty of the Centre is that UQ has about 450 willing students who have volunteered for this work. That’s a very different thing to offer than just ‘UQ students are available to you.’ 


Chloë: Do you think there is enough emphasis given to the professional responsibility of pro bono in regular course work at UQ? It is emphasised really strongly in subjects like Legal Profession, but that’s usually in the later years of the degree, and a few years after they qualify to sign up for the roster.

Monica: I think we could all do a better job of integrating the message throughout the degree from start to finish.  The problem is partly a product of the Priestly 11 and what you have to study to be admitted – we’re hamstrung a bit by those requirements. But then I think we could do more. The Centre has been working with Dr Burdon who coordinates Law and Society to have a session in that course about access to justice, and students who are engaged in pro bono work come and speak about what they’re involved in. I do think we need to make it a more continuous message.

Chloë: But that’s up to everyone.

Monica: Yes. You can possibly teach every course with some social justice flavour – for example you could have a really interesting critique of corporations law, and administrative law is just ripe for it, with judicial review. But then I do have sympathy for wanting to efficiently run a course, especially with large numbers of students.

Chloë: And now that they have cut the cohort size, do you think there’s more of an opportunity to encourage people to think about these issues because of a more tight-knit community?

Monica: Yes, quite possibly. We don’t really know what a smaller cohort will be like yet, but there will hopefully be more opportunities to have conversations about access to justice and pro bono.

Jennifer: Hopefully it will also mean there’s a higher ratio of students who can take up opportunities on the Roster and in the Clinical Placements.

Chloë: What is your vision for the Centre over the next few years?

Monica: Quality; not quantity. I don’t necessarily want to see us measure our impact just through numbers of tasks and students. I am focused on making sure those tasks have been done as well as possible; that students have had a really positive experience; and the ‘value add’ for the CLC or law firm is clear. The second thing is we have identified through our strategic plan is growth in international pro bono and CLE opportunities.  A lot of that work is now in process. The MoU we signed with the Supreme and National Courts of PNG has seen opportunities slowly trickle through to students, but that, again, is something that we have to be really respectful about: it is not about self-promotion. At the end of the day it is about service.

Jennifer: It is about service. In a law relationship, confidentiality is so important and there are times where you can’t shout your achievements from the rooftops. That is something that the Centre respects and so do our students. It’s about maintaining the trust between the Centre, the students, and individual Centre Partners. It’s about being able to trust that if partners seek Centre assistance they get that quality support.

Chloë: Finally, what would you say to students who want to get involved?

Jennifer: Come on down!

Monica: Absolutely, sign up. You’re not committing to anything by registering on the pro bono roster. I’d like to think that we are approachable: we have an open door policy and we will happily speak to students about the opportunities.

Jennifer: I think that’s the major message, particularly to students who are on the roster, have applied for opportunities and haven’t received a role. We try to give every student a fair go. It isn’t all about GPA, it really is about who is the best fit for the opportunity available at the time.

Monica: I would also say that we always try to be responsive to student ideas, and a lot of initiatives now exist because of an idea that a student had.  

UQ Law students who have completed sixteen units of LLB Laws courses are welcome to register online for the The UQ Pro Bono Centre Roster. All positions are advertised via StudentHub. Applications for LAWS5180 - Clinical Legal Education Program are also open until 4 November 2016. The list of clinics available, as well as the application form, can be found here.  JATL sincerely thanks Monica and Jennifer for their time!