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  • Writer's pictureEmma Cassidy

Be part of the Activist Lawyer Movement

  • Feeling like the university library is a million miles away from Suits?

  • Wondering how looking backwards at precedent and outdated caselaw can impact the future

  • Questioning why some people are more worked up by OSCOLA referencing than human rights concerns?

If any of this sounds familiar, then you are definitely in the right place. The Activist Lawyer community is focused on the matters that matter – and is made up of lawyers and non-lawyers alike.

Our organisation, The PILS Project, illustrates this point perfectly: some staff are legally qualified as solicitors, others have studied law but ultimately decided going into practice wasn’t for them. Together, they work to promote the use of public interest litigation in Northern Ireland to bolster equality. As you might have heard when we appeared on the podcast, everyone at PILS is united in their passion for using the law to create change: Sarah from a proactive practitioner’s perspective, Emma by creatively communicating legal stories.

For anyone reading this who is considering studying law, embarking on a career but still has questions about becoming a legal practitioner, or is curious about using their legal skills in a new way, keep scrolling.

PILS has put together some of our tips for students and legal professionals with an interest in getting active:

Get informed and get involved.

Think about the stories or topics that tap into your desire to create change. What gets you talking, debating, and thinking about how you’d do things differently. There might already be a university society dedicated to the issues that motivate you. If not, talk to your Students’ Union about starting one, or making links with other universities.

An important lesson for all activists and allies is ‘nothing about us without us’. If you aren’t directly affected by an issue, you can still campaign for change, but don’t do that at the expense of those groups with lived experiences. Find out who is working on the issue locally – follow them on social media, sign up for their next event, or ask if you can lend your support as a volunteer.

Always remember to keep a balance between digging into the details and doom-scrolling. Activists are solutions-based by nature, so a good way to avoid feeling disheartened is by following groups who are achieving positive change. For example, much of the media coverage around the climate crisis is intense (not without good reason!) and that can feel overwhelming. The Climate Craic NI movement is seeking to change that, by focusing on the joyful aspects of community action to protect our environment. Another example is Grist’s daily Beacon mailing of good climate news.

Then, get involved. UK Pro Bono Week was a week-long celebration of legal volunteerism at its best. This year, UK Pro Bono Week turned 20, and there was a host of online and in-person events happening, so make sure to check out our Twitter to find out more about legal pro bono.

Link law and life.

Now that you have found the issues that ignite your passion, or linked up with activists who are organising around a lived experience that you might share, it’s time to connect the dots. Look for opportunities to link the legal knowledge that you have gained with real-life problems. As Sarah and Emma both mentioned in the podcast, this is a key part of our work at PILS and we are big fans of clinical legal education.

Clinical legal education is a proactive approach to legal study that gets students involved in casework, through supervision and frontline work in a clinic. (If you’re studying at Ulster University, there could be a chance to get involved in their own award-winning Law Clinic.) Not only does this practical approach to law really improve your problem-solving skills, more importantly, it places the clients at the heart of your work and demonstrates how empowering legal knowledge can be.

If your university or workplace doesn’t have a clinic or outreach model yet, ask your lecturers or colleagues if this is something you could work on developing together.

Use your own unique power.

Don’t rule yourself out of legal activism based on your professional qualifications. There’s definitely still a perception that you can only get involved in pro bono work if you have lots of experience in human rights. Legal professionals can assist NGOs at any stage of their career, regardless of their specialism.

For example, in 2020, in recognition of the unique challenges posed by COVID-19, PILS expanded the remit of our Pro Bono Register to include queries on COVID-specific issues. We were able to connect the Children’s Law Centre with A&L Goodbody’s Belfast team during the first lockdown when they faced furlough and a raft of new employment/HR issues. Specialist commercial solicitors lent their skills pro bono to help sustain our NGO community.

Also, you may have studied law at undergraduate or postgrad level but decided that practicing wasn’t right for you. The legal research, problem-solving and writing skills you learned during your degree won’t desert you; these are strengths that could serve you really well for a job in the NGO sector.

PILS are a membership organisation, with collaboration in our DNA. We strongly believe that it takes a diverse group of humans to build a successful strategic litigation case; from advice line call-handlers who can pick up on trends, to communications teams who explain why the case is so important, to policy gurus and talented campaigners who can apply the judgment to follow-up actions. And – of course – activist lawyers!

The PILS Project team would love to hear from activist lawyers and law students who are keen to promote human rights and equality. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn, sign up for our monthly Update email, or write to us

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