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.

Just Published: The Clinical Legal Education Handbook

Photo by Jez Timms

Lee Hansen, Lecturer in Law, University of Essex and Professor Donald Nicolson, Director of the Law Clinic, University of Essex

The Clinical Legal Education Handbook (edited by Linden Thomas and Nick Johnson; published by University of London Press on behalf of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies) has launched providing law schools with a go-to-guide for establishing or maintaining their clinical programmes. Two academic members of the University of Essex Law School have contributed to this publication.

Lee Hansen, Deputy Law Clinic Director and Member of the Human Rights Centre, has contributed three chapters.

The first of Lee’s chapters provides guidance for clinics on client care to help such organisations provide to their clients a proper level of service. The chapter sets out key aspects of client care including the use of intake guidelines; client identification; time limit management; conflict screening; and the disclosure of key information to clients about the service and how their matters will be handled.

Client care has always been important but is of particular significance in the context of the current pandemic. Clinics are making changes to their regular service models to enable them to continue to assist the community throughout this unprecedented time. This may inevitably involve some new ways of working (such as the use of video conference technology) but it remains as important as ever to maintain appropriate systems and processes to ensure that clients who are placing their trust in these services, receive the best quality experience.

The second of Lee’s chapters provides guidance on effective signposting and referral. The chapter sets out key principles of effective signposting and referral, provides information about referral systems and set outs the regulatory position under SRA standards and regulations.

University law clinics often close outside of term time as students return home. Such closures also provide academic staff with much needed time to catch up on their scholarship or research which is often impossible to do during term time. In such circumstances where there are gaps in the continuity of a service it is critically important that persons enquiring for help are directed to an appropriate service that is able to assist. Again, in the current pandemic as sources of assistance are narrowed this guidance is of particular significance.

The third of Lee’s chapters provides guidance on the provision of debt advice by university law clinics. This chapter reviews changes to the regulatory landscape that largely prevent university law clinic from providing debt advice and suggests potential workarounds to support some provision in this important area. There will clearly be a significant level of legal need for debt advice in the context of the current pandemic and in its economic aftermath. This chapter therefore suggests some practical options to university law clinics to assist in meeting such need.

In addition to Lee’s chapters, Prof Donald Nicolson was asked to provide “words of wisdom” from those with many years of experience with law clinics and clinical legal education. Drawing on 25 years of experience in running law clinics (and four years as a student in a student-run clinic), Donald offered four items of advice to other clinicians:

  • the key to a clinic’s success is its people, so take your time selecting students and work colleagues;
  • never underestimate student – they will always surprise you with their enthusiasm, passion and new ideas;  
  • take risks – don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good; and finally,
  • look after yourself – don’t allow your passion for the clinic take over your life to the detriment of friends and family.
Published in May 2020

The Clinical Legal Education Handbook is freely available online in PDF here.