Future Lawyer Blog

Pro bono insights: Vocalise

Rosanna Drinkhouse is a GDL student at City, University of London. She has bravely taken on a brand-new Lawbore column: Pro bono insights, which is designed to give both current and future students a closer view of particular pro bono opportunities lurking out there…


Life on the GDL at City is a maze of tutorial prep, coursework deadlines, lecture notes, and applications….but outside of the busy schedule, there is an opportunity for students to catch a glimmer of why we are studying the law and a golden chance to gain some legal work experience. City University enthusiastically encourages its students to seek pro bono experience, especially in areas of the law that interest us both as students and as citizens. During induction week we were presented with a dizzying array of options; from manning domestic violence call centres to providing legal advice to start ups. Though the GDL is logistically challenging in terms of the sheer amount of work, and the complexity of the law we are studying, investing in pro bono allows students to hone skills such as critical thought and verbal reasoning. The importance of these skills is really emphasised on the GDL, as are the benefits of tangibly utilising our positions to positively impact disenfranchised communities.

Discovering which opportunities my fellow classmates select is of real interest to me, as it reveals what they are passionate about. So this is what I’ll be investigating in this and future updates…


“Rosanna, what have you been up to lately?”

I get this question a lot as I journey through the GDL at City Law School. In response, I could say, “well, I’ve learned a lot about Diceyan philosophy” or “you wouldn’t believe how many networking receptions I’ve been to,” but honestly I think the most interesting aspect of my law school experience thus far has been my involvement with Vocalise, which allows law students from across London to teach debate to prisoners in several London prisons, in an effort to energetically contribute to the prison’s rehabilitation and educational outcomes.

This program is run by students through Gray’s Inn’s educational department and culminates with a final debate between the prisoners and an Oxbridge student debating team. The program is the first of its kind in the UK and in its seven years of operation has won numerous awards and is modelled after a program at the American Cornell University. After a rigorous application process, aspiring barristers and solicitors are trained as debate ‘mentors’ with weekly training during the first term. The time commitment for students is one evening a week for training during the first term, and being available for teaching cycles during the second term. My teaching group, for example, is spending Wednesday afternoons in ISIS, a young offenders prison, for three weeks. We are also teaching in Downview, a women’s prison in February.  This year, Vocalise is partnering with HMPs Pentonville, Downview, Thameside, YOI ISIS, Feltham and Wandsworth. Mentors learn about these prisons through a session with prison staff during the training period, allowing students to ask questions about a range of aspects; from the range of prison education courses available at the prisons, to prison security. This presentation also allows students to anticipate which teaching techniques would be most effective for prison populations.

Though law students are greatly encouraged to devote time to pro bono and applications ask directly for it, Vocalise is far more than a CV filler.  I asked some of my fellow City GDL students why they got involved with this program, Dougie Phillips explained, “the great thing that can be gained from Vocalise is not a skill; you can gain perspective.  For too many criminal barristers jail time is just a sentence, an abstract thing that results from their actions.  Whilst empathetically or through anecdotes one can “understand” what prison is like, nothing can top experiencing it first-hand.  More broadly, you gain perspective with regard to the privileged position that many budding barristers have come from.”

Vocalise mentors undergo a term’s worth of training in debate mechanics and teaching techniques, during which law students practice speaking confidently and conveying content strategically. In fact, the more Vocalise mentors I talked with, the clearer the significant vocational relevance.

My fellow City GDL-er, Sophie David explained “particularly if you’re a criminal barrister, it’s important to know for whom you are advocating, and Vocalise does get you on your feet and speaking. If you want to be a solicitor and deal with clients, you need to know how to deal with people. Also, as a person who has largely benefited from the society I live in, and can see the huge amount of privilege I have, I think it is important to challenge myself to engage with more difficult aspects of the broader society we live in and benefit from.”

Sophie Marquaad, who is currently serving as a Vocalise Director, offered some context about why Vocalise is advantageous for aspiring legal professions:

“Vocalise is unique because it is a client-facing opportunity to interact with people who you would not be interacting with normally and it is a change to see them outside of the legal bubble, you are not their advocate, they aren’t your case—they just exist.”

Vocalise allows law students to engage with a group of people they would not typically have access to, aside from a client/professional perspective and develop empathy and a human connection with them.

For me, personally, during my undergrad degree, I wrote a paper concerning the heinous correlation between members of society who are born into homes with a low socio-economic status, have low literacy levels and, for reasons, like categorically having access to few opportunities, end up in prison. I examined data points, like reading assessments, sectors that experienced job growth v those with shrinking opportunities, and developed empathy, but I had not had the opportunity to encounter a prisoner. I have devoted time and thought to thinking about the lack of rehabilitation opportunities, but have not played an active role in countering the grave realities incarcerated citizens face.

Vocalise appeals because it is a tangible opportunity for me, and others like me, to provide support, offer recourse, and engage with a segment of the population that we would not normally encounter. Vocalise is not about giving legal advice (in fact we cannot do this) and we are not even allowed to ask what what led to them ending up in prison.

Rather, it is about offering prisoners an opportunity to gain skills that will objectively aid them after their release — confidence gained from participating in the final debate will carry them through a job interview, the skill of presenting a logically crafted argument will be helpful in any employment situation, and the art of emotionally dis-entrancing oneself enough to be able to argue for either side of a contentious issue will be advantageous throughout life.

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