Earlier, I wrote about the role of law clinics as agents of social justice in a democracy. In this post, I will consider the institutional context in which law clinics operate. Universities have supported law clinics, amongst other reasons, because they enrich the academic study of law, allow students to gain vocationally relevant experience and skills, and help universities contribute to local and wider communities. And law clinics, in many diverse forms, have delivered these things; and it is hoped that universities will continue to support them in doing so.
We take into account changes in universities. The employability of their customers and the impact of their academics are now key concerns. Recent regulatory developments also suggest that law degrees in particular are likely, overall, to become much more vocationally oriented. Nevertheless, the core educational mission remains – expanding and transmitting knowledge, culture and critique through scholarship, research and teaching. The role of a university as a distinct site of authority in society also endures, and crucial to that are its independence and a certain distance from other sites. Both role and mission deserve respect. A university is not an NGO, nor is it a basic training outpost for the legal profession.
Respect is also due to the individual interests and agency of the client that a law clinic offers to assist. A client’s case should be driven by the client’s interests and instructions, not by an ulterior ambition. The ethos of the institution will determine the sort of legal service it offers. Beyond that, and a commitment to providing a first class service, it is best if teaching and casework are not distracted or distorted by prescribed agendas, but are led by example.
What a happy synchronicity it is that a university can, very conveniently, combine a contribution to local and often wider communities, with an extraordinarily rich educational opportunity for its students. Staff and students can help people obtain such things as their proper entitlement to welfare benefits, decent housing, refugee status, compensation for unfair dismissal, the resolution of family disputes, advice to those in prison, and access to public greens, all by facilitating access to the law, and all in the course of learning and teaching, at little extra cost. Providing a fine public legal service and teaching our students well are good and important ends in themselves, and as challenging as they are rewarding.
The purely academic benefit is central, and is often misunderstood. The supervised participation of students in a legal practice allows them to engage with the law and its unfolding application, and also with the people who are immediately and intimately affected by it. It offers a thrilling learning curve. And the learning can focus on the law. Vocational skills will be acquired, but it does not have to be an internship, mini-pupillage, legal practice or training centre. It is a wonderful opportunity to learn about law from a new perspective.
In its educational dimension the practical activity is a means to an end, and that end is a better knowledge of law and an improved ability to reflect critically on law and its application in practice. The casework is only half of it. Law clinics require students to reflect critically upon and research further matters arising from their practice, and to submit substantial written work on relevant law, procedure, doctrine, theory and policy – and on the problems and lives of others. If we ensure that casework and study are a joint enterprise, then law clinic students can truly deepen and broaden their knowledge of law and society, and refine their ability to think about it. We can leave the rest to them.