I had the chance to go away for the summer — here are five reasons why I’m glad I didn’t
Though it would have been a lot easier to visit everyone’s favourite Balearic island, I chose to complete a four-week stint at legal charity, the Personal Support Unit (PSU), which provides practical and emotional support to those who do not have legal representation. Here are my top five take-aways about why volunteering at the PSU was the right choice:
1. Experience, experience, experience
People always go on about “hands-on” and “real-life” experiences but it really makes a difference not only to your CV, not only to how you come across at interview, but also to how you study. The PSU is the best place to get this experience because you are dealing directly with real clients who have very real problems. In my first week at the PSU I was immediately immersed in anything from witness statements to grounds of appeal.
I was really surprised about how fast-paced the working environment there is. Clients would drop in unannounced with any number of issues ranging from housing or family disputes to relatively small money claims. The level of exposure was fantastic.
The PSU is the perfect place to network with legal professionals. Prepare to meet people from all areas ranging from barristers and solicitors to retired judges. I met a number of leading barristers from top-notch chambers, some of which I hope to apply to for a mini-pupillage some time in the future. Volunteering at PSU is a golden opportunity for law students — and you have to make the most of it whilst you are there.
3. Opening your eyes
Working at the PSU has allowed me to witness first hand how government cuts to criminal legal aid have impacted on the general public and has made me realise not only are there so many vulnerable people left without any legal representation but also how much they need legal support charities like the PSU.
As just one example: the family courts have been left in chaos with parents desperately trying to understand complicated legal procedures regarding contact arrangements.
I feel much more knowledgeable about these issues and have a whole new perspective. It is one thing to read about something in the papers, it’s another to see the result of how these cuts are tragically affecting people’s lives.
4. Emotional intelligence
Part of the role of the PSU is to provide emotional support to individuals who are in desperate need of it. Working at the PSU was, at times, very similar to being a counsellor. Most of the clients would arrive in an emotional state, needing someone to help them gather their thoughts and simply listen to them. You quickly have to learn how to respond to this: a smile, a nod, occasionally adding in a few “ahhs” and “mms’” to show that you are, indeed, listening. My PSU experience led me to developing a newly-found empathy and provided me with a heavy dose of emotional intelligence.
5. Feelgood factor
Last but definitely not least is the feel-good factor about doing pro bono work. At the end of each day you may be tired but you really do feel rewarded. I saw first hand how much you can do for people with patience and a level-headed approach. Most of the clients I dealt with had never been to court before, many were unaware of basic court etiquette. The most commonly-asked questions were: “how do I address the judge”, “how do I dress?” and “what is a skeleton argument?” A few words from you makes all the difference to them.
PSU clients were also overwhelmingly grateful to you for supporting them. With more than one client wishing me a “God bless you” or something similar, I often left the office with a spring in my step, feeling that I had helped someone out there.
The PSU saw an incredible 900% rise in clients helped last year. But with the organisation expanding across the country there are increasing opportunities for law students to volunteer. You can find out more about your local PSU here.
Christianah Babajide is an LLB student at City University.