Community and Connectedness in Clinical Legal Education: Before, During and After the Covid-19 Pandemic

Photo by Unsplash

Lee Hansen and Liz Fisher-Frank, Lecturers in Law, University of Essex

As the pandemic transformed the way that we connect with others, we have been reflecting on the impact for clinical legal education and the place of community in law clinic activities.

In June 2021, we spoke to the joint conference of the International Journal of Clinical Legal Education and the Global Alliance for Justice Education. We reflected upon the Essex Law Clinic’s sense of community and interconnectedness before, during and after the pandemic. In this blog post, we highlight some of the main points covered in our presentation.

In recent years, the Essex Law Clinic (ELC) had been making significant strides in extending its service into our local community, undertaking a broad range of outreach activities alongside its campus-based clinic. This had improved access to justice for vulnerable and disadvantaged groups across Essex.

Some of this work had already been explored in a presentation we gave to the 2019 conference of the International Journal for Clinical Legal Education in Bratislava on Outreach Clinics in Areas of Deprivation. In that talk we had highlighted the challenges and impacts on community, student learning and wellbeing entailed by this work. Furthermore, we assessed ways to develop our existing outreach work in Jaywick, Colchester and across the Tendring area.

This work was halted upon the arrival of the pandemic. We speedily managed to take our advice service online ensuring many clients were able to benefit from the practical and improved accessibility for some that online advice allowed. However, for groups served in the outreach clinics the move to online delivery may have created barriers to access.

Our presentation drew upon Charles Dicken’s novel, A Christmas Carol, which itself engages with themes of community and isolation. Our reflective process was mapped against the sense of revelation in the novel, where the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future provide Ebenezer Scrooge a window into the strengths and challenges for community around him.   

Reflecting on our pre-pandemic clinic

We looked at where we were two years ago in developing, as we saw it at that time, our community outreach work. Internally, we were focusing on student community, recognising that developing and cementing our law clinic student community was a work-in-progress, needing thought and planning particularly around student teamwork.

Reflecting on our pandemic impacted clinic present

Externally, we recognised the links we have lost in the local community as services were suspended or even shut down due to Covid-19, with many contacts moving on or facing redundancy. Equally, we acknowledged the frustration of not being able to reach the clients we most wanted to due to the barriers faced in accessing the Virtual Law Clinic.

This negative was balanced with an unexpected positive when looking at our internal sense of community. Lockdown, and the enforced isolation experienced by so many students, galvanised us into action. We pushed forward with initiatives to promote our clinic community, to help students engage with the clinic and with each other. We created a newsletter, Clinic Connect. We hosted regular zoom ‘drop-in’s’ for students to chat with us about law, the Clinic and/or anything else. Although, undoubtedly, there was far more that could have been done, the pandemic propelled us into a sharper focus upon student connectivity and engagement with the Clinic.

Reflecting on our potential clinic futures

We are working towards re-establishing our links with external contacts, to ensure our outreach work can resume as soon as it is possible to do so. We are looking at developing new contacts, to change our service in line with the changes other services have had to make during this period of, what we hope to be, ‘recovery.’ It is even more important to us now to rebuild our outreach work and to again, make it a key facet of the Clinic.

We will continue to work on the progress made to date in relation to our student connectivity. Zoom has enabled more effective teamwork to take place, allowing students easy access to meeting up to prepare for cases in advance. We will ensure that when face-to-face returns, this progress too will be replicated. In fact, the dawning of our understanding, due to the pandemic, of the importance of our connectivity both in and outside of the clinic has meant we would like to see this as central concept in all our work in the clinic.

Reflection on the Law Clinic’s relationship with the local community and the development of an internal community of practice in the past, present and our possible futures, in the context of this pandemic, has provided a useful tool for our planning and we can see the transformative potential for the future.

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