Many aspiring lawyers find it hard to break into the industry because they need meaningful experience to build and demonstrate their skills. One of the best ways to gain genuine and comprehensive legal experience is to become a FRU volunteer.
What is FRU?
The Free Representation Unit is a charity with twin aims to:
- relieve poverty by representing people who can’t afford a lawyer and
- educate aspiring lawyers.
We were created by law students and we specialise in providing clinical legal education to aspiring solicitors and barristers.
What legal work do we do?
We offer free representation in social security and employment tribunals. We also accept Upper Tribunal cases and can take cases into the Higher courts as necessary.
Who are our volunteers?
Most of our volunteers are law students or have finished their studies and are seeking a training contract or pupillage. We also have volunteers who are in practice as a solicitor or barrister and we welcome people at any stage of their career.
How do you join FRU?
To join FRU you attend a training day and sit a legal test. There is a £50 fee to attend the training. In order to attend a training day you must meet the following criteria:
- Social Security: Have reached May in the penultimate year of an LLB or started the GDL.
- Employment: Have completed a qualifying law degree or started the GDL
- Cilex students can volunteer for FRU if they have completed their level 3 diploma.
- Foreign Qualified Lawyers can volunteer for FRU.
- If you have practical experience of working in the tribunals we cover, but do not meet the above requirements, you should contact us with details of your experience.
The legal test is an interpretation test, you will be given a short case-study and asked questions about how the law applies. The test assumes no prior subject knowledge and you will be provided with the relevant law. You will have just over 1 day to write your answer at home and send it to us.
How does being a FRU volunteer work?
Cases are referred to FRU once the tribunal hearing date has been set. The cases are graded in terms of their complexity (for example: any representative, not first or second case and experienced representative). The volunteers choose which cases they want to take on within their competence and availability. There is no minimum number of cases that must be taken. Once a case is selected the volunteer undertakes initial preparation and then has an interview with a legal officer so that they can be ratified to formally take on the case. The volunteer goes on the record on the case with the tribunal and barring exceptional circumstances is expected to see the case through to the hearing.
Volunteers undertake research and prepare the case in the FRU office in Holborn central London. The legal officers are always available for consultations, and will check in with the volunteer at each key stage. FRU representatives gather evidence, hold a conference with the client and draft legal submissions. For employment cases they also negotiate potential settlement terms with the respondents.
This is one of the few opportunities to genuinely be responsible for a legal case from an early stage through to advocacy at the hearing. Although it might sound daunting the opportunity to learn and develop is extensive and there is always support available.
Susan has volunteered with FRU for several years. This is her experience:
As a student at BPP, I was eager to work at FRU, but this experience has given me much more than I ever expected. There is great camaraderie between volunteers and a friendly, supportive team of talented / experienced FRU staff, all of whom work together in a productive, but informal atmosphere. The selection of cases on offer meant that I could always find something to suit my schedule, giving me the opportunity to work on a wide range of cases.
Every time you take on a case you never really know what to expect. Sometimes you find the client’s medical issues are far worse than on paper, or they have come from a background of domestic abuse which impacts on the case. I’ve often found myself arguing really interesting points of law – great experience for future lawyers. For example, I was able to successfully establish that a different statutory interpretation of the habitual residence test applied.
On my first unfair dismissal case, I had the opportunity to advocate against an experienced barrister which was really exciting, though also mildly terrifying. However, I find that once you get stuck into the real advocacy, cross-examining witnesses, the anxiety dissipates, and you become client-focused.
Representing clients who would not otherwise have representation is both a privilege and a humbling experience. Having worked with vulnerable clients with mental health issues has taught me the soft skills of client care that can’t be learnt without first-hand experience. Similarly working with clients who’ve lost their livelihood / job security, can be as much about managing a client’s emotional need to prove they’ve been unjustly treated. To give the best advice, I’ve learnt to make the distinction between what actually happened and what can realistically be established at Tribunal.
Running a case from beginning to end is not only incredibly rewarding but also a rare opportunity for us budding lawyers to grow, learn and develop our legal skills – from case preparation, evidence collection, client management to writing submissions and advocacy. I have truly found FRU to be the ultimate pre-training ground for becoming a lawyer.
FRU is currently advertising training days for both social security and employment. Please go to their website for further details.
Many thanks to David Abbott, Chief Executive at FRU and FRU volunteer Susan for this excellent piece on the opportunities available at FRU.