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Interview: Olivia Clark and Kristin Bong

Our pro bono lawyers and the firms they work for are the backbone of KIND’s project – without them, we couldn’t begin to have the impact that we do, or help nearly as many children, young people, and families obtain documentation and access their rights to residence and citizenship. Georgia Iacovou sat down with Olivia Clark and Kristin Bong to discuss their experiences being part of the project at founding partner firms DLA Piper and Allen & Overy. 

We caught up with two dedicated lawyers from partner firms who’ve been with us since the beginning of the project: Allen & Overy and DLA Piper

Together, these firms have taken on over 200 pro-bono cases to help children and their families across the UK. Olivia Clark (DLA Piper) was instrumental in bringing the project to new hubs outside of London. Her firm was in the unique position of having multiple offices across the UK, and so she used these to successfully introduce the project to Manchester, Birmingham, and Edinburgh, saying “if you look at a heat map of where people struggle to access legal advice, it’s mainly outside London, so I was really keen to bring the project to areas such as Birmingham and Manchester.”

Much of the project’s success is of course down to the model that KIND UK uses with the firms and law centres. Kristin Bong (Allen & Overy) noted how, in 2015, this model was entirely new to the UK. ‘Pay to play’ models — where the commercial law firm has to pay to get involved in the work — were perhaps not so popular. But, Kristin added, “funding a role is a very different proposition. It recognises the amount of resources that a charity has to expend in order to provide these pro bono opportunities.” Having been with the pro bono team for a year and a half now, Kristin has seen the value of firms getting together to fund supervising solicitors: ” You really do need the support of a dedicated lawyer at the NGO side; someone with the time and expertise. That only works if you have enough buy-in from the commercial partners involved.”

Without people like Kristin and Olivia to champion our model for us, we would have been unable to make such a huge impact on the lives of children who desperately need legal advice. Kristin mentioned that sometimes the work she and her colleagues do is relatively simple, but the impact is incredibly significant: the doors that are opened from gaining leave to remain are key. She told us that one of her clients even started learning English, because she knew she would finally be allowed to stay in the country.

Cuts to legal aid have meant that there is significant need for this pro bono work to be done. Olivia also sees this work as an opportunity to demonstrate that these cuts are entirely unjust: “since 2012 this work has sat outside the scope of legal aid, and the government insists that anything outside of scope does not require legal assistance. The system is complex and our experience is that clients need legal support and advice. ” So as well as helping children and their families, this work is also illustrative of where policy changes are needed.

Kristin too agrees that policy change is necessary. She says that this pro bono work does not actually fill the gap that cuts to legal aid have left — it’s supplementary only: “If you think about it from a policy perspective, we try and avoid talking about pro bono work as ‘filling the gap’ because really, the gap shouldn’t be there. The pro bono response is something that we can do — and should do — but it’s not something that should exist in an ideal world.” For these reasons Kristin will often ask herself what long-term impact a project has; will it be demonstrative that policy change is needed, or not? That’s why she considers the work with KIND UK so valuable: “it’s really simple: there’s no legal aid available for the processes we support, and those processes can be very complex”.

Finally, they both agree that this work also benefits the lawyers who undertake it. The kinds of cases that their lawyers take on — especially trainees and juniors — are the kinds they would never get to do in their fee-earning work. Kirsten mentioned that “this enables responsible volunteering as well, because taking on this work means that lawyers are more skilled up to volunteer in the future.” Olivia even receives requests from senior partners to put their juniors on to pro bono projects, because “they come away better lawyers at the end, and it helps the firm to hire and retain the best lawyers. If you’ve never done pro bono work before, it’s a great place to start”.

We would like to extend a special thanks for all the hard work put in by the lawyers at both Allen & Overy and DLA Piper — their crucial contribution of time and expertise has enabled KIND UK to change the futures of children across the country.

If you or a law firm you work for or with is interested in learning more about volunteering time or resources to Kids in Need of Defense UK, please contact Annie Cooper, our national outreach coordinator.