The Dark Knight Rises: what next for business & commercial law clinics?

For those who were unable to attend, this is a transcript of the keynote address I gave to the first UK Business & Commercial Law Clinics Roundtable #CLCR17 on 3 March 2017. 

Slide 1

Good morning everyone. I’m delighted to see so many people here at the inaugural Business & Commercial Law Clinics Roundtable.

I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Patrick [Cahill] and team for all their work in bringing us together, for what will undoubtedly be a fantastic day of collaboration and discussion.

And what I’d really like to encourage is discussion about the grittier aspects of running a B&C law clinic. Because we often say, “isn’t clinical legal education wonderful?”. And, yes, indeed it is. But what really matters at a roundtable like this, is that we have an open conversation about the issues that make life a little bit difficult. And then share how we’ve dealt with those issues.

Today, I’d like to take the opportunity to reflect on issues that have arisen during my six years leading a B&C law clinic and writing/talking about this type of work.  So: let’s go back in time.  Let’s go back to 2014.  A classroom with 6 students. Students working in our B&C law clinic. All sat round a table. Discussing what we do. With me.

Slide 2

And I laugh and say to my students, “We’re like Bruce Wayne. People think we’re really awful – rich and egotistical. The reality is we’re doing good. But no-one knows about it”.

Bruce Wayne is a fictional billionaire industrialist who lives in Gotham City. To most, he represents the archetypal narcissistic, self-indulgent and shallow playboy business owner. By night he is of course Batman. A superhero.

Despite Batman’s selfless actions, his work habitually goes unnoticed by the general public and he is often vilified in the press. One of the epithets he is known by is The Dark Knight. This phrase appears in the 1939 comic “The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom”. Wayne says “Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible…”

And in the film of the same name, Batman, represented here by Christian Bale, is rejected by the public and demonised by the media. He continues to work in the shadows; safeguarding justice but out of view.

Like Bruce Wayne, those involved in the business world are subject to snap judgements and negative stereotypes. Aggressive, ruthless, greedy.

Lawyers who assist business owners do not fare any better. Indeed, we are often portrayed as the greater evil. Does anyone know this joke?? Why won’t sharks attack corporate lawyers? Answer: Professional courtesy. And in a recent series of The Apprentice in the UK, where one of the candidates was a commercial lawyer, Lord Sugar quipped that “it’s always nice to see a lawyer tortured”.

As a clinician who leads a B&C law clinic, I have frequently found myself in the position of having to defend our work. And I find that curious because – like every other law clinic I have come across in the past six years – my B&C law clinic does exactly the same thing: it provides free legal advice to members of the public in our local community.

At the heart of our Law School is the Student Law Office, a real solicitors firm. I know many of you have been to visit. And if you haven’t or you fancy a repeat visit, we are hosting the International Journal of Clinical Legal Education Conference in July this year. All are welcome. It’s a fantastic conference and if you need any more details please do let me know. Okay, that’s my plug done!

Approximately 180 students work in the Student Law Office each year. They are divided into teams of six, known as firms, and each firm is supervised by a designated Senior Lecturer who is a qualified and experienced lawyer. Each firm deals with an area of law. So we have firms who provide housing advice, firms that deal with crime, firms that advise on employment issues etc etc. Students are continuously assessed on the work that they do throughout the year by their supervisor. The Student Law Office module is a key part of the final year of our students’ degree. It accounts for almost 40% of a student’s final year grade.

Our  B&C law clinic is part of the Student Law Office. We – myself, Victoria, and our colleague Anna – supervise those firms. And we’re doing exactly what the other firms in the Student Law Office are doing – except we’re helping companies, social enterprises, entrepreneurs.

So what’s the problem? Why the need for a defence?

Here’s the nub of it. There is a narrative attached to clinic that says we should only focus on low income clients, and low income clients dealing with personal issues.

Now I should make it clear that I have no issue whatsoever with clinics that do that. It is up to each clinic director to decide how their clinic works.

But, the focus on financial poverty – a traditional view of poverty – has promoted the idea that B&C law clinics, especially those like mine that do not means test, cannot possibly be consistent with a social justice mission.

Now the Batman line was throwaway, designed to make my students laugh – and to bring on board a little pop culture into my classroom. But there is truth at the core. B&C law clinics (of all models) have been maligned in the literature.  I always remember being struck when I read that the move away from clinics for the poor was being equated to clinic losing its soul. Wow, that’s powerful imagery. And terrifying for someone who wants to promote B&C law clinics. But B&C law clinics are doing good and they can be socially just, even if they don’t focus specifically on the poor. We just need to be willing and able to open ourselves up to new narratives.

Slide 3

In order to move forward, we need to do two things:

  • we need to fracture the mythology surrounding businesses and the stereotypes that they are all run by multimillionaire playboys:
    • 99.9% of the 5 million enterprises in the UK are small to medium businesses. the reality is that most are home-grown creative projects developed by people who have skills, talents and services to offer. I’m going to sound like a politician here, but… The success or failure of these enterprises is directly linked with the prosperity of the country. A thriving business community means a strong economy, which in itself brings investment and employment opportunities.
    • Imagine that you are a 30 year old woman with a family who is running a successful online business, mostly from home. You are looking to expand. New premises and international trading are in your business plan for the next 12 months. You would like help with trade mark registration and understanding how the law protects consumers. This may include having a set of terms and conditions drafted for your website. You come to the clinic and over the course of an academic year you are provided with most of the advice that you require. You use the money saved to help fund an undergraduate student as a marketing assistant for a summer placement. That’s the sort of clientele we’re talking about. No multimillionaire playboys here.
  • Let’s have another look at this idea of social justice. I think we’re still using a one dimensional definition of social justice. The definition that focuses on financial poverty.
    • All forms of business law clinics –whether they means test, or structure their model like ours – are promoting social justice. Because they are giving students the opportunity to learn about the commercial world in a real life environment. It’s not called Clinical Legal Education for nothing!
    • And why shouldn’t education include business and commercial work? The majority of my students are not from wealthy backgrounds. They often tell me they are the first in their family to go to university. They strive to get an interview with large corporate firms in our region. Working in a B&C law clinic gives students an experience that allows them to go into an interview and talk about networking, commercial awareness, how to deal with professional conduct issues that frequently arise in commercial practice. It helps them to stand out. It gives them confidence. To provide that experience, is to me, at the heart of what social justice is about.

Slide 4

So, let’s own our Batman status. It’s time for the Dark Knight to Rise. Where do we go next? My call is three-fold. Lets:

  1. Come together as a network. Build on events like these. Support each other.
  2. Challenge the notion that assisting the business world cannot be congruent with a social justice mission. Even if your clinic is going to means test, or restrict its advice to particular groups – it’s your clinic, you do what you think is best. But, let’s look towards an all-encompassing vision of what social justice can mean and be.
  3. Publish more peer–reviewed work.  We need to get B&C law clinic research out there. There is an appetite for it. My article on UK B&C clinics published in Journal of Legal Education last year has been downloaded more than 240 times. Let’s get writing.

Thank you.

 

 

 

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