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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 the future. 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 of that year that we would be reluctantly accepting a 'new normal' some six months later. One of the things that I have learnt throughout 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, I had decided that the clinic needed to make changes. Our way of working was firmly rooted in an on-campus presence with paper files, and a lot of supervision within the four walls of the clinic. 

We needed to change to provide flexibility and to align with mixture of face-to-face and online communication the world has become accustomed to. 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 sidestep into remote working should the need arise – Covid-19 related or otherwise.

A female student working alone in the Law Clinic

The first step: consultation

Embarking on 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, and 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
  • 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.

The changes now mean that access to the law clinic will be more flexible for students and clients, and our students will develop a broader range of employability skills. The use of technological advances is in keeping with the changes we've seen in the legal profession too. 

Throughout, we still remain firmly committed to:

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

The Sunderland Student Law Clinic is open for business (free, of course!). Learn more about Sunderland Student Law Clinic.

Published: 20 April 2020