Another year, another Scottish University Law Clinic Network conference, and another opportunity to write a blog which doubles as: 1) a repository for my notes and thoughts from the event; and 2) a plug for Scotland’s network for all academic things pro bono publico. Previous notes about SULCN can be found on this blog here and here.
The latest SULCN offering was a day-long conference at Edinburgh University (PDF) with two prominent threads, namely: how law clinic participants can learn from social work; and Street Law. I have attended a David McQuoid-Mason Street Law session before, and I learnt much from it. Fascinating as Street Law is, this year I made the tactical decision to focus my attention on the social work side of things.
Carrie Anne Hagan, Susan McGraugh and Stephanie Kristen Boys, three clinicians from the USA who came to share knowledge and experience from clinical legal programmes at Indiana University and Saint Louis University, began the day with a plenary session, setting out their experiences from their respective civil law, criminal law and social work backgrounds. All this made for a great dynamic and set the scene for an holistic approach to law clinic clients; i.e. clients tend to come to a law clinic (or indeed a lawyer) when they have other problems in their life, so you may need to take a holistic overview of matters before you can solve the problem that is presented to you.
Why would a social work-type approach help with this? Law students might fixate on legal tasks, filling out paperwork, explaining disclaimers and the like, without actual displaying any emotional intelligence as to issues a client might be facing. Mental health issue spotting and awareness of financial challenges or indicators of poverty (perhaps where a client struggles to access a telephone or get to a court by public transport) might be crucial to a full understanding of, and in turn a solution to, an as yet unmet legal need. If law students gloss over such issues, or do not know how to address them, this could be a problem. This has led to an innovative (at least to a Scottish audience) approach to client interviewing at Indiana and Saint Louis, where the initial interview is conducted by a law student and a social work student. After this initial interview, it is up to the students to decide how best to run the case. A straight consumer dispute might be one for the black-letter lawyer, but a nuanced case involving a pattern of behaviour might be one for the social work student: interdisciplinary work in action. There may also be “legal” cases which are nothing of the sort, the example given on the day involving someone who kept being sent back into custody because he could not fill out the relevant forms and no-one offered to help or realised help was needed, making this case as much about literacy and issue-spotting as about legalities.
So what lessons might (Scots) law clinics take from this? The visiting academics invited students to think about what they are doing at the moment, what might they be missing, and where to find what you are missing. In a university setting, this could feasibly lead to relationships with social work, medical or business students, for welfare, healthcare or consumer protection issues respectively. Each clinic will be a creature of its own academic and geographic circumstances, but it does seem innovation and interdisciplinary approaches within such circumstances can be a clear part in the sustainability of clinical legal programmes. It was also stressed that parity of participation was crucial, i.e. that law students and (say) social work students need to know they are as important as each other (the bad interview practice of a law student failing to identify the social work student to the client was cited as a potential problem).
A number of social work theories and techniques were touched on (such as the systems theory and motivational interviewing), and the interviewing benefit of using speculative “what if…” questions rather than direct and judgemental “why…” questions was identified, not to mention the rapport building tools of using “well done” affirmations with a client who is conditioned into thinking they can only do wrong, or reflective listening to show that you are being attentive to someone. Some of this seemed reminiscent of client interviewing training and the ICCC, but social work insights add much to this and could no doubt be explained better by someone other than me (and hence the need for interdisciplinary work.)
So that was the social work side to the day, but there was much more going on at SULCN 2014. In addition to the networking, there was a number of workshops on things like innocence projects, the logistics of running a clinic and the educational side of clinical work. I attended a session hosted by Richard Grimes of York Law School, who discussed a number of approaches to formal clinical legal education and challenges that come from juggling the various aims of CLE. He made the point that those aims (such as social justice and skills development) need not be contradictory or conflicting, but he did acknowledge there can be tensions (some of which I have digested elsewhere on this blog). The discussion then turned towards assessment, including the central question of why should you assess at all. Responses include: to ensure students are developing; to sell a course to a host academic institution; and to foster an academic commitment to law clinics. Approaches to assessment (such as reflective writing, reflective portfolios and oral examinations) were also discussed, whilst recognising the well-known dangers of assessing individual cases which arbitrarily might fall to a student to deal with.
Like the year before, the conference concluded with input from solicitors and an advocate, who explained how pro bono publico work can continue long after graduation, be that via a channel like LawWorks Scotland or maintaining a relationship with a law clinic. In less than three years, SULCN has developed something of a niche role in Scotland in relation to this, both in terms of introducing students to a wide variety of pro bono activities at an early stage of their development and also to foster and showcase relationships across the profession away from the university environment. Long may that continue.
A Storify of this event is available here.