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Returning to work – Sunderland Student Law Clinic

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By Catherine Arnold, Director of Sunderland Student Law Clinic

Early on in the Covid-19 pandemic, the Law School talked about contingency plans for September 2020. The work of the Sunderland Student Law Clinic would need a significant review to adapt to a socially-distanced campus. Back then we thought this was an ever-so-cautious approach and everyone was confident life would return to the way it was in September 2020

How wrong we were!

No one could have predicted back when we went into lockdown in March that we would be reluctantly accepting a 'new normal' some six months later. One of the things that I have learnt in recent months is that you have to expect the unexpected and be prepared for unforeseen challenges and adapt as you need to.

Even before the realisation that there would be a new normal in September 2020 I had decided that the clinic needed to make changes. Our way of working was firmly rooted in an on campus presence:

  • Paper files
  • Students supervised within the four walls of clinic
  • A lot of supervision in pen

We needed to change to provide flexibility and to align with the hybrid model of teaching adopted by the University.
It was important to make revisions to the modus operandi of the Law Clinic in order to protect the safety and wellbeing of students, staff and clients. In the event of any issues we needed to be poised to side step into remote working should the need arise – Covid-19 related or otherwise.

The first step: consultation

Embarking on a consultation for the 'remote Law Clinic' as Clinic Director, there were genuine reservations – how on earth could we make this work and maintain our standards and adhere to professional regulations?

Back then it just didn’t seem possible to operate the Law Clinic partially or fully off campus – there are too many factors at play – it won’t happen!

With some help and support from the clinical legal education community and the timely publication of free legal resources on the topic, there was a chink of light – we started to think this could be possible and set about working on the plan.

It was important to categorise each aspect of the Clinic, evaluate how we worked pre Covid-19 and how we could move forward in the new normal. Painstakingly and methodically, we worked through each aspect of our operations and made changes. We would:

  • Go paperless
  • Utilise timetabled sessions for access to the Clinic
  • Adopt a more structured approach to learning
  • Facilitate the ability to work off campus on client cases
  • Utilise new aspects of the web-based case management software, Clio, to minimise the risks of working off campus
  • Hold client appointments using Microsoft Teams

There were some positive changes to be made, changes that would have been gradually introduced, just not at the breathtaking speed we were doing so this year. So from a position of reticence, we are now excited to commence the new academic year and navigate our way through the new normal.

A female student working alone in the Law Clinic

The changes will mean that:

  • Access to the law clinic will be more flexible for students and clients
  • Students will develop a broader range of employability skills
  • Our use of technology is in keeping with changes in the legal profession
  • The Law Clinic can continue to operate safely in the current climate

We remain firmly committed to:

  • The Student Clinic experience
  • Delivering pro bono legal services to the community
  • Adapting as we go

So the Sunderland Student Law Clinic is open for business (free, of course!). We hope to be taking on new clients from October 2020.

Learn more about Sunderland Student Law Clinic.

Published: 20 April 2020

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