The Social Justice Question: A Response

I’ve spent the last 10 days in Eskisehir, Turkey at the 8th Worldwide Global Alliance for Justice Education Conference / 13th International Journal of Clinical Legal Education Conference. Over 300 delegates from 50 countries from all over the world attended. If you’re on twitter and you want to know more about the goings-on at the conference please take a look at:

@ijcle #IJCLE15

@2015gaje #GAJE2015 or #GAJEinTurkey

I was part of the team live-tweeting from the @ijcle account. We’ve really tried to capture the spirit of the conference – there’s some brilliant photos, quotations and links to published works. Please do check it out if you’re interested in clinical legal education pedagogy and research. To whet your appetite, the photos below show the beautiful walk we had each day through Anadolu University – our wonderful host during the conference.

2015-07-28 17.17.29  2015-07-28 17.14.45

Our paper  

On day three of the conference (having taken part in some excellent interactive papers and research studies – and getting more and more nervous by the second!) it was time for qLegal’s Patrick Cahill and I to give our paper. Friday morning, 9am.

Patrick and I had decided to present our findings from our collaborative transactional law clinic project. We wanted to show how you could have a random idea – we had ours walking down a street in Amsterdam – and bring that idea to life. To actually go through with it, rather than parking it for another year and lamenting what could have been.

In our project we brought students from two different business (or transactional) law clinics together in order to enhance their learning experience. But in truth what we found went beyond that. We discovered that our project raised questions about what it is to be the “right” client in clinic and the depth of feelings and emotions in clinical activities.

A visual representation of our students' views on the project
A visual representation of our students’ views on the project

You’ll be able to read our slides on the Northumbria Law School Legal Education and Professional Skills Group (LEAPS) page here in due course.

Seeing Both Sides? 

At the end of the paper, the question that I’m asked nearly every time I talk about business law clinics came up:


I really like the social justice question. It gives us all an opportunity to critically analyse what we mean by social justice and how clinic fits into our world.

This was – and is – my response:

1. Clinical Legal Education – let’s not lose the E word 

I always start by saying that I don’t think I – or anyone else – should dictate how clinics should and shouldn’t be run. The goals and drivers behind those clinics are personal to each organisation. As I said at the conference:  each clinic is wonderful in its own way.

This is my view: it’s not called clinical legal work – it’s clinical legal education. My primary role is to be an educator. That doesn’t mean that we forget about our clinical clients – or place them to one side. In fact it means we can cast our net wider, and welcome a broader range of clients with a broader range of backgrounds. Clients who want to start businesses and clients who have been running them for generations. Clients with funds and clients without. Clients with 20 employees and clients with none. Because if my goal is to educate students then I want them to have the fullest experience possible – to see, as far as they are able, all the different kinds of clients there are, and the many areas of commercial work that they could be involved with as lawyers.

2. We need to reconceptualise social justice

That word – social justice – was used frequently throughout the conference. It was used in the opening speeches, in plenary sessions, in many of the papers, in interactive training workshops, and in the corridor when we spoke to each other fervently, passionately about our clinics. But I think we’re still using a 1-dimensional definition of social justice. The definition that focusses on financial poverty.

As I recently argued in this article in the Law Teacher, social justice can still be achieved by helping an enterprise which has assets and could go somewhere else for their legal advice. Why? Because that enterprise gives something back to our community. Whether it be through employing a recent graduate or charitable giving or creating a fantastic new shop on our high street – this work develops our community.  In our paper, Patrick called this economic justice. He spoke of the female entrepreneurs that his clinic was helping. Those woman had assets? Probably. Could they afford to go to lawyer? Probably. But they needed help to get started and they could use those funds in another way, on another expense (and there are many of them). Our help – our little piece of advice about corporate structure, our helpful information about branding, our assistance with contracts – could ultimately mean that their venture was sustainable.

Our paper was called “Seeing Both Sides”. It wasn’t about how business law clinics can fit into the social justice mission. But maybe, with that title, we were subconsciously trying to get our audience to see the other side of the argument. To see how social justice is about equality of opportunity: for our students and for our clients.

2 thoughts on “The Social Justice Question: A Response

  1. Richard Owen says:

    Thanks Elaine. I agree that business advice is capable of promoting social justice. Free advice agencies often will only advise individuals but if you are made redundant often the only way to remain economically active is to set up a small business. Also what about the bright graduate who sets up a business they often feel they cannot afford legal advice but a university law clinic can initially advise them whether or not their idea needs intellectual property right protection and failing to pay for legal advice will be costly in the long term. Surely that promotes a community good?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. alawuntoherself says:

    Thanks Richard. Your example of the bright graduate rings very true. We’re assisting a number at the moment. Those graduates might have part or even full time jobs, and they might have some savings in the bank, but – in my view – that shouldn’t mean that they are excluded from the type of assistance you describe.


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