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A Law Clinic journey

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By Catherine Arnold, Director of Sunderland Student Law Clinic

I joined the Sunderland Student Law Clinic part way through 2018/19 and therefore did not get to experience the full cycle of an academic year. With 2019/20 being my first full academic year, I was both nervous and excited about the challenges ahead.

One of the things that has struck me, is that as Law Clinic Director, I have a duty to three things: students, staff and clients. All of these things take priority in their own way as they are all interweaved within the ability to run a law clinic, our foundations and our raison d'etre.

My mantras to staff and students since undertaking the role of Director have been:

  • Students – You absolutely have to work hard in the Law Clinic but don’t forget it is part of your course. If it gets overbearing, you must tell your firm supervisor or me! We need to prepare you for the rigours of practice (where in the main you will be expected to work longer hours) but your Law Clinic work cannot be allowed to take over or be detrimental to other modules.  
  • Staff – The firm supervisors that we bring to the table are highly experienced and put students at the heart of what they do. Having spent the last eight years of my career working in private practice in global corporate law firms, my mantra to them has always been that you must only take on work that you are comfortable with and are well versed in. The Law Clinic does not have the luxury of Manchester-based costs teams or partners in London who specialise in a particular area of law on speed dial.  

Turning to clients, we have a rigorous triage system to make sure that the work we do for clients is true to those mantras and is done to a high standard. We also need to ensure that we have the resources and expertise to carry out the work. Our focus is always on giving a good standard of service to the clients and protecting their interests. The Law Clinic is a learning environment, but the focus of what we do is to provide high-quality legal services to the wider community.

I have had my own personal difficulties this year. My father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer early in January and sadly passed within a month of diagnosis. In the midst of everything, I also split my leg open needing 15 stitches. Your life can turn on a sixpence (as the current coronavirus pandemic has proven) in the blink of an eye. I was determined to soldier on and finish what I had started.

So, in the midst of all this, rather than take an extended period off and recover fully (as many around me urged me to do), I broke up my time off in and around the time of the funeral so I could return to the helm and oversee the Clinic to the end of term – a crucial time for student assessments. My father-in-law was immensely proud of my role and I was determined to see the academic year through as it was what he would have wanted.

When I talk about my role as a Law Clinic Director, I normally talk about being the captain of a ship sailing the Law Clinic ship in choppy or calm waters, depending upon the day of the week. At the end of each term, I see my job as steering the clinic into dock. As a testament to my father-in-law and a shift from the nautical theme, I genuinely thought my return on 16 March would be to take the wheel of his Morris Minor Traveller, perhaps have a few small bumps along the way, and drive the vehicle leisurely into the Easter vacation. I did not expect to take the wheel of a Bugatti Veryon (just as the University was on the cusp of moving to online teaching) and be tasked with driving it around the Italian Alps navigating it around hairpin bends at high speed.

There were many unexpected decisions to be made with ever-changing circumstances, day by day, and hour by hour. On the day the Law Clinic closed its physical doors:

  • My family said a hurried goodbye to my sister-in-law and niece, with whom we had been spending time dealing with our grief as a collective. When the Australian Prime Minister called for citizens to return home at the earliest available opportunity, they had brought their flight forward and dashed to the airport not knowing what the journey would bring.
  • I dropped my daughter off at school (in her mind just a normal day), not knowing when the next drop off would be and nervously awaiting the pack of work for home schooling, although this task has not been as impossible as I thought and daily Dojo updates and ideas from her school teacher have helped!
  • I cried buckets watching the Year Six pupils at my daughter’s primary school be honoured with their ‘clap out’ of school (traditionally reserved for the last day of the summer term), with the school community coming together to show their support for their pupils.

It serves as a reminder of the personal disruptions (and for some the challenges have been far, far, more heart-rending) this pandemic has brought, but we need to draw strength from the power of community, working as a collective and supporting each other.

Having worked in law firms which were fully electronic and contact with clients was by telephone, switching to remote working fully should have been a relatively easy side step. A Law Clinic where we mostly carry out face-to-face meetings with clients, where client data is strictly controlled and students are supervised to within an inch of their life is a different matter. As the world went into lockdown, the next steps were not easy and, as I keep telling students, this is all new to me too and we are learning together. 

Two female students looking at a document together in the Law Clinic

So how did we as a Law Clinic community face the challenge of working during a global pandemic?

The Law Clinic has adapted well:

Students and staff

  • Staff have met via Zoom to pool thoughts and ideas
  • We have a collegiate atmosphere amongst staff and students and have made use of remote video technology to continue firm meetings
  • We have continued to support students through reassuring emails, one-to-one video calls and phone calls
  • We hold live dial-in assessment guidance sessions which are recorded and made available for students who could not attend

Clients

We have continued as best we can to service as many of our clients’ needs as possible:

  • With telephone advice from firm supervisors themselves
  • Accessing our Law Clinic email to deliver written advice and deliver drafted documents 
  • All work delivered via firm supervisors from the comfort of their own homes (with a few restless children in the background) and with student input in the preparation of the work where permissible
  • Even where we couldn’t give out advice, we have delivered guidance sheets to members of the community so they at least receive some support

I woke up early the other morning and watched Erin Brockovich which was a timely reminder of why I joined the profession and why I am where I am. I have never given up and always been tenacious and determined to make a difference in the work that I do. The same applies to all the firm supervisors and students who work in the Clinic. So, in spite of the challenges this pandemic has brought, we will continue and we will make it work.

Being in charge of a Law Clinic during a pandemic is not how I expected to end my first full academic year. But as the world faces uncertain times, people lose loved ones and NHS and key workers continue on the front line, we as a Law Clinic and a University have a lot of positives to focus on. With our staff, students and clients safe at home with their loved ones, we have continued to support students and stayed true to who we are. We have serviced some of our existing clients effectively and our students will get assessed and get the marks they deserve.

The Law Clinic has a special place in the hearts of students and staff. The development of skills and confidence it gives to students, equipping them for the world of work, be this as legal practitioners or in non-law jobs, is like making magic. So, in uncertain times there is one thing for sure – the Law Clinic journey can continue in many different ways, shapes and forms.

Published: 20 April 2020

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