How to start your own law clinic

University law clinics not only meet a public need, they also help students to develop their vocational skills. Laura Manning finds out how to start, maintain and develop your own clinic. DIY colour painters

Few things are more welcome in society today than the promise of free legal advice, and it is law ­students who are stepping up and filling the gaps created by legal aid cuts.

Student participation in free legal advice centres is commonly referred to as ‘Clinical Legal Education’ – when involvement in the clinic is seen as an essential part of the ­undergraduate LLB.

But today, the acquisition of skills and knowledge is seen as only part of the ­motivation, with public need beginning to trump career enhancement. That said, the perfect combination of all three goals will assist in the start-up, maintenance and growth of a law clinic.

Almost 50 per cent of law schools support some element of clinical or pro bono activity, allowing for numerous law clinics to ­(continually) pop up around the country. However, despite it becoming increasingly common, it is by no means a simple ­undertaking.

Clinical work can be resource-hungry and demanding on the time and energies of ­faculties and students. A lack of structure, planning and strategy can collapse a legal advice centre before anyone has really got their teeth into it.

“From planning to opening the legal advice centre it took about eight months, and that was with great support from the university and Southwark Legal Advice Network,” says ­London South Bank University (LSBU) Legal Advice Clinic director Alan Russell, who opened a drop-in clinic in September 2011. “It takes time and a huge amount of organisation.” 

Objectives and outcomes

When embarking on a proposal for a live client clinic there are several questions to be ­considered: Will the clinic be full-practice or limited representation? Will it provide general advice and assistance or specialise in a ­particular area? Is it going to be in-house or an ‘externship’?

Before any of these are tackled you will need to juggle issues such as educational goals and outcomes, staffing, available resources and necessary training and case management tools.

The goal of a law clinic could, in its simplest form, be to meet a public need. But, to harness the support of your university or law school, the objective may also need to include ­contribution to the curriculum. That being the case, intended learning outcomes would have to be discussed internally with your ­institution.

“You need to convince academia that [the law clinic] is required for students to learn practical skills along with the ­academic side,” says Julie Pinborough, who runs the legal advice centre at Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL). “Graduates will not only gain academic and practical skills, but the ­ethical skills that are important for a career in law.”

A further consideration is whether the clinic will work on multiple platforms or deal with a particular area of law. Examples of specialisation include the University of Southampton’s employment law clinic and the University of Kent’s public access to land project.

“If you don’t specialise you’re in danger of ­trying to do too much,” warns Kent Law School’s clinic director John Fitzpatrick.

“We operate in social welfare law and public law, which are two broad areas, but the aspects we focus on are of great importance to the ­community.”

Pinborough advises that students should take time to research the local area to identify where the gaps are.

“I researched areas where there was more of a need or where other centres were oversubscribed,” she says. “We knew the community was being served [in Mile End, London], but it was over-served in areas such as housing.”

The format or structure of the clinic also requires deliberation. Will it provide letters of advice, be a phone service or a drop-in ­centre?

“We had a particular model we wanted to do from the outset, which was an open-door, drop-in advice clinic, three sessions a week,” says Russell.

“The students are the first point of contact for the clients, and we’ve seen more than 150 clients since ­September.”

Once the overarching goals have been set, these may need to be revised or scaled down when analysing resources such as staffing, premises, opening hours and other physical resources such as furniture, storage and ­technology. 

In-house vs externship

An example of an externship programme is the Surrey Law Centre, a joint collaboration between the University of Surrey and a local law centre. The clinic, opened in 2010 by Cherie Booth QC, helps with cases involving domestic violence and evictions.

Externship programmes often cost a lot less to set up because the premises and equipment are already in place. That said, there may be a number of site costs to consider or other ­contributions that may need to be met. The law centre would need to be equipped with relevant indemnity insurance, for example.

Meanwhile, an in-house law clinic would need a permanent location at the university, which could result in the need for a new ­building. This type may be easier to control and supervise due to its situation within ­university premises. An externship would require good collaboration between law school and the external clinic.

“It’s important to build networks and ­partnerships,” advises Russell. “LSBU has been very supportive about incorporating the advice clinic in the law school. They provided the premises and gave [the supervisors] time off teaching to do it.”

Access to justice

Whether an externship or in-house, you will need to consider if the centre is accessible to the students and, if it is a drop-in centre, accessible to the public.

The decision will also depend on building an appropriate client base. A sufficient level of casework could make or break a centre during the youth of the project. An externship ­programme in an established centre has the advantage of an existing workload that ­students can get their teeth into quickly.

“It’s a bit of a leap in the dark starting from scratch,” ­concedes Russell.

“We ­originally needed a publicity plan, but quickly realised we could ease off publicity because of growing numbers.”

“Such is the level of unmet legal need, we didn’t have to advertise again [since the clinic opened in 1992],” adds ­Fitzpatrick. “Once people hear of you the phone keeps ringing – it’s less how to find the work but more a matter of how to accommodate the level of need.”

Keep in mind that an externship ­programme could limit the level of freedom students have over the types of work they carry out as well as their level of responsibility.

Staffing

Staffing levels will depend on whether the clinic will work as a full practice or a limited representation centre. In a full-practice ­situation, students would normally manage an entire transaction or piece of litigation.

Northumbria University’s Student Law Office and the law clinics at LSBU, Kent and Sheffield Hallam University operate like this.

“We wanted to give the students an edge, so the more practical experience, the better,” says Russell. “But we’re offering a professional service to the public so it does also need to be supervised and have the involvement of ­practising solicitors.”

Partial representation means students fulfil part of the lawyering role, such as giving the initial advice before referring the case to another agency.

For example, QMUL’s clinic is run by its students and a couple of supervisors, but does not undertake casework or the representation of clients in court or tribunal. Instead, it acts as a referral agency to other free legal advice providers such as LawWorks, the Bar Pro Bono Unit and the Free Representation Unit.

Lawyers from seven top City law firms, including Allen & Overy, Field Fisher Waterhouse, Mishcon de Reya and Reed Smith also support the clinic on a pro bono basis.

“I’m not a qualified solicitor, and nobody who works at the centre in the daytime is – we instead tap into City firms and take our ­volume base from them to work with our ­students,” says Pinborough. “One thing I like about this is that it exposes students to seven law firms and they get to interact with trainees, partners and managing ­partners.”

The staff-to-student ratio requires careful consideration. The teachers or legal ­practitioners may need specific knowledge or experience, and you may need certain support staff to cover administrative, secretarial or technical needs. Of course, much of the latter could be met by student participation.

“The starting point was to establish a three-way partnership between the students, the academic staff including qualified lawyers, and voluntary solicitors and barristers locally,” says Fitzpatrick. “We now have just over

50 solicitors and barristers who offer their ­services to the clinic.”

In search of space

Aside from location issues, the size of office will need to be discussed in light of staffing issues. Do you need space for a reception desk, a face-to-face training area or private client ­meetings? Will you require space for ­document ­storage, computers or a library facility? Pinborough warns that you might need to start small and find the room to grow later.

“When I approached the College of Law for advice [on starting a law clinic], its clinic was being run in a tiny room – it was ­practically a broom cupboard,” she says. “You have to start small, as you don’t know how ­dedicated the students are going to be, or the level of funding or space available.”

Kent is currently calling for support to ­significantly expand its facilities in a bid to improve client service, and is hoping to raise £4.7m for a new building and to create a mooting chamber.

“We’ve outgrown our accommodation and want better recruitment of staff and students,” explained Fitzpatrick in a previous Lawyer 2B interview. “We’re hoping to expand ­substantially, to have more room to breathe and to provide better service for clients.”

Avon & Bristol Law Centre
Avon & Bristol Law Centre

Case management

Levels of demand for a law clinic can be unpredictable, despite scores of planning and strategy meetings. For example, one of the members of staff or supervisors could have contacts that might help to build a caseload quickly. With that in mind, creating a case management system of sorts is imperative to ensure you do not end up buried under piles of paperwork.

“As many of the academic staff were ­previously solicitors we had a lot of experience handling cases,” explains Fitzpatrick. “We ­created a case management system, but ­constantly have to refine it. It’s an evolving tool and under ­constant review.”

The University of Strathclyde is a good example here, as one of its students, Alasdair Stewart, scooped the top prize in the Attorney General’s pro bono awards last year for his ­creation of a case management system for the university’s law clinic.

Devising an induction programme and arranging ongoing training to be run by the staff is important to the success of a clinic.

“The best advice I can give is to talk to people who have done it,” says Pinborough. “You need to start small but build up year-on-year.”

To limit numbers and ensure quality you may need to construct an interview process for student participation if numbers become too high.

“We aimed to create something that is prized and valued at the university, so student places are subject to a competitive application process,” says Russell. “We’re looking for ­reliability, good communication skills and the ability to be non-judgemental of clients. We have also offered relevant training. 

Clinical excellence

Success and the opportunity to grow depend largely on two factors: money and level of ­support.

“Money is obviously an issue so you will need to draw on lots of resources such as local solicitors and advice agencies for assistance in kind,” advises Russell. “As long as we maintain the support of the university and can draw in support through things such as the London Legal Walk and sponsorship from firms or alumni, we can look to expand.”

Russell, Fitzpatrick and Pinborough all see the importance of embedding law clinics into the curriculum to encourage the support of their universities.

“One thing we’ve always done is to ­emphasise the academic benefits as well as the vocational benefits,” says Fitzpatrick.

“It can’t thrive in a university if there’s not a significant educational component. Without that the university wouldn’t have been so ­generous with help and support.”