Exclusive interview: what's it like to be a pro bono lawyer (Part 2)

by Chris Tang in Pro Bono

DatePosted on September 21, 2015 at 10:24 AM
Share share

In the second and final instalment of this Star Anise (SAL) exclusive interview on pro bono legal work, Clifford Chance Senior Associate, Richard Hawkins, reflects on what he's gained from his experience a pro bono lawyer.   

To read the first instalment, click here.

SAL: So, Richard, as a practicing lawyer from a law firm, what skills or attributes do you feel have helped you in undertaking your role at Justice Centre?

R: As lawyers, we are to some degree professional researchers and writers, which helps immensely in preparing research memoranda, testimonies and legal submissions.  Clifford Chance* also makes all of its resources available to the pro bono lawyers at no cost to Justice Centre, so knowing what resources are available and how to deploy them has also proved useful in my pro bono work.  

ClickFor example, I can recruit other lawyers to assist on larger projects, use the firm's paid databases to search international news publications and scholarly articles or arrange for the translation of foreign-language documents, just as I would for a paying client, but at no cost to Justice Center.

As a transactional lawyer, I often prepare corporate disclosures, which means I help companies to succinctly explain complicated issues in organized, plain English to investors and regulators.  

This skill is helpful when I need to explain an asylum seeker's complicated life history to a court. In addition, my experience interviewing corporate clients and gathering facts with a critical eye is also useful for my work with asylum seekers.  The asylum seekers also appreciate their lawyers' professional duty of confidentiality as they entrust us with the details of their very private and painful experiences.  

(Editor's note: other organisations who have joined Justice Centre's partnership programme include other law firms and the in-house legal teams of major international companies, and provide similar legal resources in the form of lawyers' and paralegals' time and expertise.)  

SAL: That's fantastic to hear, Richard! What skills have you developed through your pro bono work with Justice Centre that have been beneficial to you personally?

R: Earlier in my career, Justice Centre gave me significant opportunities to work directly with asylum seekers in a one-on-one capacity, which helped me to develop skills as an interviewer and confidence as an advisor. Researching international law issues and drafting legal submissions are also unusual experiences for corporate lawyers, so my volunteer work has helped me to expand my skill set.

Photo credit: UNHCR, S Schulman

Finally, working with Justice Centre has also enabled me to network with Justice Centre staff and pro-bono volunteers in Hong Kong, as well many other interesting professionals who volunteer their time with non-profits in the region.    

SAL: What experiences have you gained through your pro bono work with Justice Centre that have impacted you personally?  

R: I've been profoundly affected by the strength, resilience and determination of the refugees with whom I have worked.  As a lawyer, it's sometimes tempting to complain about stress, deadlines and long hours, but working with refugees who have survived unspeakable atrocities quickly puts everything into perspective. To simply be alive and safe is a tremendous blessing.  I have learned a lot about sympathy and empathy through working with the refugees, especially as a son, husband and father. 

"To simply be alive and safe is a tremendous blessing." 

I really can't imagine packing my children's few belongings into a backpack and sending them to an unknown country with a trafficker in the middle of the night, or worrying for months after my wife disappeared on her way to work, or feeling betrayed by my government when my father is tortured because he voices opposition, but the refugees make me try to imagine these things and place myself in their position. They help me understand that we are all alike and that any of us could be similarly displaced. 

I've also been so grateful to witness the healing process that the refugees experience.  When they first arrive in Hong Kong, my clients seem so vulnerable and unsure.  As they experience safety, gain access to social services, build a life here, and learn to share their stories, they become new people, strong and confident. Their resolve to never give up is inspiring.

"...working with refugees who have survived unspeakable atrocities quickly puts everything into perspective..."

The Justice Centre staff is equally impressive in its professionalism and expertise.  They are capable and brilliant individuals who could work for any number of organizations, but they choose to dedicate their professional lives to helping the underserved and often unappreciated refugee community in Hong Kong. On a personal level, I admire how much they genuinely care about the welfare of each one of their clients.

Richard Hawkins talks to Star Anise legal recruitment on life as a pro bono lawyerMy wife, Betsey Gimbel Hawkins, also volunteers several days a week at Justice Centre in an advocacy function, helping administer Justice Centre's "Voices for Protection" program.  The program teaches asylum seekers and recognized refugees to be advocates for themselves.

It has been enlightening for me to learn more about Justice Centre's important advocacy work through her experience, since I only work on the legal services side, and we have enjoyed having our work at Justice Centre in common. My kids have also benefitted from Justice Centre's work in Hong Kong schools.  They loved participating in Justice Centre's recent "Hunger for Change" campaign.  It has really become a family affair!          

SAL: Were there any preconceived notions of undertaking pro bono work or working with refugees at Justice Centre that have since proven to be untrue or turned out to be the complete opposite of what you expected?  What were they? 

R: Although I don't mention this to the asylum seekers, I always try to approach each case with the preconceived notion that the asylum seeker's claim is untrue. After all, the court or other decision-making body is going to approach each case with the same assumption and it will be my job to help demonstrate otherwise. After each interview, I spend hours checking various sources to see if each piece of information that the asylum seeker has given me is true and/or consistent with other available information. Once, I spent approximately three hours trying to verify the name of a tiny hostel in Somalia! 

The very knowledgeable and experienced Justice Centre staff has also been very helpful in this regard. I'm happy to say that, for each claim that I've researched, my professional skepticism has proven untrue.

Unfortunately, there are many people in Hong Kong who carelessly believe that all asylum seekers in Hong Kong are economic opportunists. This is simply untrue and causes a lot of unnecessary suffering for the asylum seekers here. Justice Centre's advocacy team is doing a lot of smart work to change that perception at all levels.   

SAL: Can working pro bono and working in a busy law firm be balanced? 

R: It certainly can. Justice Centre has been wonderfully helpful in allowing its pro bono lawyers to take on as much or as little responsibility as they can handle. When firm life is particularly busy for me, I'll usually only take on a memorandum that I can research during odd hours of the day or night.  

When I have more time to dedicate to pro bono work, I'll usually volunteer to prepare testimonies or draft legal submissions, which tend to be a bit more involved. But these can also be worked on at any time of the day or night—I often work on them after the kids are in bed or when I'm waiting for others at work to send me something. Justice Centre has been great about giving me and the other pro bono lawyers diverse options and generous deadlines. Many of the Justice Centre staff are lawyers themselves and understand the pressures and constraints of a busy law practice.

Photo credit: UNHCR, S Phelps

I should also add that, if you are unable to your contribute your time or legal skills, but would still like to help, there are many worthy organizations that accept donations, including Justice Centre.  Justice Centre also organizes many events that are a great way to learn and get involved. 

My favorite is the Justice Centre's annual exhibition and auction of the Hong Kong Human Rights Arts Prize.   

SAL: Do you feel working on pro bono matters helps with your career development?  In what way? Justice Centre Hong Kong - click for more information.

R: Clifford Chance highly values its pro bono clients and expects its lawyers to engage with the community in this capacity. The partners at Clifford Chance are very supportive of pro bono work and look very highly upon lawyers who are able to balance busy traditional and pro bono legal practices. 

When it comes to annual reviews and promotions, the partners consider, among other things, whether you have been volunteering your time to worthy causes. I've also developed some expertise in the area of refugee law and regularly field questions from colleagues and friends on refugee issues that they encounter.  I wouldn't have imagined this would be the case five years ago when I first began volunteering.  

SAL: Richard, this has been a really insightful and helpful introduction to the world of a pro bono lawyer. Finally, what advice would you give to someone thinking of undertaking pro bono work (whether at Justice Centre or anywhere else)?  

R: If you find a cause that you feel passionately about and a team that you enjoy working with, volunteering your legal skills will be a joy. Fortunately, I've found such a cause and team in Justice Centre.

Click here to return to Part 1 of interview.

Interested to know more about Justice Centre Hong Kong and how your organisation can work with them?

For more information on Justice Centre and how you or your organisation can make a contribution, read our exclusive interview with Justice Centre's Pro Bono Manager, Ms Jacqueline Leahey. In addition, you can contact Ms Leahey on jleahey@justicecentre.org.hk or telephone +852 3109 7359. 

Justice Centre Social Media Links: 

Website: http://www.justicecentre.org.hk/ 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/justicecentrehk 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JusticeCentreHongKong  


Did you enjoy reading this article?

Then go to our Facebook and Linkedin pages and 'like' them for more articles, discussions and tips on job hunting and career development!  

About the Author

Chris Tang

Chris is a co-Managing Director of Star Anise and a former practising corporate lawyer. He is a regular post contributor on LinkedIn and you can connect with him here: 


Read more Articles by this author