Clinical Legal Education: My reflections on the Form and Funding event at LSBU

I have blogged about my interest in clinical legal education and pro bono publico student law clinics a number of times (see here, here and, for good measure, my Streetlaw blog here). A developing interest in terms of my pedagogical study is the role of such activity in undergraduate and postgraduate learning. This made a Higher Education Academy (now often styled the HEAcademy) conference at London South Bank University particularly attractive to me, so I duly arranged a trip down to London to attend and the wonderful people at the HEAcademy were kind enough to give me a small grant to cover travel and subsistence. (My friends Gregor and Graham were also kind enough to put me up on Friday and Saturday nights respectively; although my socialising in London is not a concern of this blog, I do gratefully acknowledge their hospitality.) In the spirit of open access, my “UK travel grant report” is here. I promised myself and a few others that I would blog about this event, and the report proved to be a bit of a triple purpose item for me, by forcing me to reflect (never a bad thing), providing the basis of my grant claim and in turn providing the basis of this blog. It asked the following questions:

How did attending the event impact on your practice?  What changes in your practice do you intend to make? I answer these two questions below, then adopt more of a note form (aka haphazard) approach to setting out my lecture and seminar notes from the day (so you may wish to skim read sections of this blog accordingly). I hope you find it useful, but I would note that further notes (and slides) from the day can be found here.

Impact on my practice

It was difficult not to come away from this event without feeling inspired. Even a quick chat over a drink in a nearby pub afterwards provided a useful forum to exchange ideas and confirm that the practice most of us adopt is right, or at least we are doing our very best to do right for our students and the wider community.

My attendance at this event is set against a backdrop of an entirely “co-curricular” student law clinic at the University of Aberdeen, that is to say a pro bono publico legal advice service provided by undergraduate and postgraduate law students to members of the public ineligible for legal aid that has nothing to do with the formal curriculum. As such, a student cannot earn academic credit through Aberdeen Law Project involvement, although there might be benefit across the spectrum of available academic subjects where involvement with the law clinic leads to greater understanding of the law and concomitant increase in academic performance in the subjects that are assessed. It can therefore be seen that I went to the conference with a slightly vested interest of seeking to identify a way to establish CLE credit-bearing course. To a certain extent, my attendance both tempered my enthusiasm (many successful models are not credit-bearing) whilst simultaneously highlighted certain benefits: as noted by Dr Sue Prince of the University of Exeter at the event, if you do not see a programme as part of your learning, that might mean you do not transfer any experiential learning from that programme. It is all about finding a balance.

I have been fortified in my mindset that compulsory voluntary work is something of a contradiction in terms, at least where student credits are involved (although I accept there is an argument for a pro bono quota of hours per year in some circumstances, as has been put in place in New York). A non-compulsory course, or courses, should allow the balance I refer to above to be struck.

The event informed me about course structure and assessment. I now know about methods of assessment that seem more sensible than some of the routes I was considering from my own experience of Scottish pro bono legal advice projects. For example, focussing on process rather than outcomes or engaging in a certain amount of sifting of legal problems that the students get involved with (to the extent this can be balanced with social justice) might be viable models. This is something else that should feed into what I develop at the University of Aberdeen.

Changes to my practice

Some of the insights from the course I can plug straight into to my skills teaching, in terms of my training of students for the International Client Consultation Competition and on the DPLP. Other insights will work into my course development activities and future practice.

I will also be able to use many pointers in a submission for my postgraduate certificate in learning and teaching and higher education at the University of Aberdeen, which is part of my journey to becoming a Fellow of the HEAcademy. (I attained Associate Fellow status last year.) Finally, and most importantly, I can channel what I took from the conference into any supervisory activities at the Aberdeen Law Project, and therefore assist students in their existing co-curricular learning activities.

Report on the conference

The thought-provoking allusion of Dr Prince I refer to above (on the benefits of overt rather than covert learning) was but one of the many things I took from the conference. I added several words to my lexicon (“pracademic” being my favourite) and I think it very likely I will add one new (to me) aphorism to my training vocational training of law students and law clinic volunteers (a lawyer must do two things: respect the client; and respect the law).

To those life lessons, some very specific CLE lessons can be added. As a starting point, simply discussing or hearing about the different perspectives, approaches and experiences of English law clinics over a coffee or as a prelude to an academic presentation provided an invaluable counterpoint to my experience of three Scottish pro bono publico services. The pedagogical research outcomes presented at the conference were highly instructive and the smaller then the plenary group sessions forced participants to get involved, whilst breaking up the monotony that lecture after lecture can entail. Even the small act of taking a walk around campus, to see the very visible drop in centre (that contrasts with a rather hidden away centre sited at the University of Aberdeen) was insightful.

The LSBU drop-in centre

The LSBU drop-in centre

Turning now to the specific sessions, the “New Clinical Projects” morning session began with Prof. John Fitzpatrick of the University of Kent. He explained that you did not need to choose “one thing or the other” between social justice and student legal education (a theme that was returned to throughout the day), and indeed there were other benefits like the potential for scholarly output, with the Kent example being a paper on immigration. Immigration has been a specialism of sorts for Kent, so the idea of channelling resources and expertise might be something other clinics could look to. The second presentation, delivered by Karen Clubb of the University of Derby, showcased the potential of a collaborative model that eschewed representation work in favour of research partnerships with existing bodies. Next, Dr Prince explained the fascinating partnership the University of Exeter has with its local court, a relationship set against the backdrop of a severe access to justice issue in Devon. As with the Aberdeen Law Project model that I know well, this project is entirely extra-curricular, and interestingly students were apparently strongly against modularisation within the curriculum (albeit Dr. Prince did mention the caveat already noted above). Where the Exeter model differs from Aberdeen is that it is more like a triage service, rather than specific or considered advice given over a period of time.

The discussion after this initial session considered many things, such as the importance of alumni to clinics, either as future pro bono participants (i.e. supporters with time, to train or to participate in advice/representation) or funders (supporters with money). There was also a discussion of the key benefits of clinic involvement, which one participant expressed (in single words) thus: educational; philanthropy; employability; and ethical. For my part, I would express it thus: pedagogic [legal skills]; pedagogic [ethics]; employability; philanthropy. This ties in, to a certain extent, with the themes of moral, clinical and legal learning identified by Donald Nicolson in “‘Education, education, education’: Legal, moral and clinical”, (2008) 42:2 The Law Teacher 145-172.

Another point raised was the difference (if any) between education and training. “Training” might not be a university’s role (i.e. producing fee-earners that can hit the ground running), but lawyers might disagree; students paying undergraduate or postgraduate LPC/DPLP fees might also disagree. That debate notwithstanding, the baton was taken up by (English) Law Society President Lucy Scott Moncrieff, who evangelised all that was good about CLE, be that forcing students to be problem anticipators for other people and readying them for the need to articulate things in a manner that works for those people, not to mention the radicalising effect in terms of awareness of the rule of law.

The group sessions (which I discuss below) were followed by the equally fascinating “New Clinical Identities” session, which really moved the debate onto matters that I have not previously encountered. Dr Chalen Westaby introduced her study on the impact of student law clinics on students’ understanding of emotional labour. It was qualitative: to use her phrase, a small sample, but rich data. Reference was made to unfamiliar (to me) people like Hochschild, and to “feeling rules”, defined by societal occupational and organisational norms. The role and place of empathy, and how this might lead on to “deep” acting and consideration of key points like “what is professionalism” really made for an interesting presentation.

Lisa Nolan continued this interest by introducing something of an identity crisis, turning the attention to the non-students in the audience: as she noted, there was plenty of focus on the students, but what about the university staff? Reference was made to Ball’s “terrors of performativity” analysis (“The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity” Education Policy, 2003, 18, No. 2, 215-228) and, as noted above, I was introduced to the new term pracademic, which term perfectly encapsulates the blurring of boundaries when you have teachers who are also practitioners (of a sort). Are HE staff members involved in CLE to be classed as teachers, supervisors or pupil-masters/devil-masters? Regular readers (if I have any) may recall I have wrestled with the concept of an academic lawyer previously. Another point that was noted was that in the US, the vocational gap that students face between studies and practice is bridged by CLE, but in the UK, we have LPC/DPLP, so does that mean CLE is about employability rather than knowledge for its own sake? The rather ontological point was also made that CLE practitioners may end up becoming who we think we are supposed to be, which made me think of the recent  article by Mathias M. Siems and Daithí Mac Síthigh (2012), “Mapping Legal Research”, Cambridge Law Journal, 71, pp 651-­676.

John Russell then delivered a very enjoyable presentation on the motivation of students that get involved in clinic work, with some tangential nods to a wider debate of good vs evil! Perhaps his most important point was to raise a scepticism of why some people get involved and his never-ending scepticism of anyone saying they want to “give something back!”

The final session took the form of a panel discussion, where everyone reported back following the group sessions on the CLE topics numbered below (with insights, in note form, added).

  1. STUDENT BENEFITS – skills, CV polishing, or good deeds? Extra-curricular or embedded?
  2. SOCIAL JUSTICE – should law clinics be targeted at this only, or can you have a commercial clinic?
    1. If clinics contribute, how should they partner locally?
    2. Lobbying role? Aberdeen Law Project’s petition and march to the Scottish Parliament on the rights of victims of crime and their families might be an example of this.  
    3. Research into access to justice? [A firm yes, as students are great campaigners and researchers.]
    4. Promoting access to justice?
    5. Commercial too? Why not? London riots example. Also, some thought “yes, help business law/entrepreneurial start-ups.”  BUT if you undermine local firms, you may lose assistance.
  3. PRIORITIES – clients or students, or a false dichotomy?
    1. Screening/sifting problems. Should you filter clients for pedagogical benefit, e.g. picking the best and quirkiest land law problems. Challenging cases are needed for an embedded course (perhaps). Unease from students at this point, even signposting can be beneficial, and all cases have their own benefits in a way (letter-writing etc.). Plus, even if a case falls apart, that is educational, so screening/sifting problems might be counter-productive.
    2. Simulation as a means to help students more? “God, no,” said one speaker as a pejorative opening gambit, but then she acknowledged some of the great A&E simulations going around. A Liverpool clinic apparently used an anonymised case as a simulation for a housing law matter.
    3. There was also a general fatigue about the debate. Client and student interests need not be mutually exclusive.
  4. RECRUITMENT/SELECTION – legal aid fans first?
    1. A firm no to this, as government and indeed student priorities will change over time.
    2. Furthermore, you might deny some people their one chance of gaining an unparalleled insight into a case that will inform that person both as a lawyer and a practitioner.
  5. FUNDING SOURCES – should law clinics compete with others (and see also three, if they are education focussed). And what about having to dance to a funder’s agenda?


One or two other eclectic thoughts might be worth mentioning, that do not quite fit into any of the above considerations or merit standing alone. It was acknowledged that the climate of reform is bringing many things, one example being paid McKenzie friends (although I know about McKenzie friends, I had never really considered paid McKenzie friends). Law clinics and CLE needs to be there and to be ready to adapt to new regulated, and unregulated, opportunities and provide real options to people with an unmet legal need.

As a final, fundamental thought, one speaker noted clinics need to be able to give effective advice. A truism? Maybe. But if they do not do that, why are they there?

Final comments

The HEAcademy sent out a survey to delegates. I submitted this review online, and it seems a fitting, succinct conclusion to this report.

“From networking opportunities, to hearing directly from students, to useful break-out sessions and informative lead presentations this was a well-structured and thoroughly informative day.”

About basedrones

Bachelor of Laws. Scots lawyer working at the University of Aberdeen. English law qualified. Took far too long to write this bio. Blogs on legal issues, with occasional veering into other purportedly intellectual stuff from time to time. Tweets about legal issues, education, law clinics, fitba, music, rogue cell division and not at all about politics at @MalcolmCombe.
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4 Responses to Clinical Legal Education: My reflections on the Form and Funding event at LSBU

  1. Pingback: Clinical legal education – form and funding | Social sciences blog

  2. Pingback: Aberdeen Law Project AGM 2013 | basedrones

  3. Pingback: Student Attitudes to Clinical Legal Education | basedrones

  4. Pingback: Scottish University Law Clinic Network 2013 | basedrones

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