“You see”, I told her, “I don’t lecture and I don’t have any seminars…”
Towards the end of last year, over the Winter break, I found myself in conversation with a friend about working in our law clinic. My friend asked whether I needed to prepare any lectures or write notes for any upcoming seminars, before I went back to work. Perfectly reasonable questions, but I suspect she did not envisage my response being quite so, well, complex. “You see”, I told her, “I don’t lecture and I don’t have any seminars”. “In fact”, I continued, “if you were to look at my teaching timetable you wouldn’t see anything listed at all”.
At this point, I suspect my friend did an internal eye-roll. She possibly recalled all those stories about how much time we academics have on our hands. Alas, not true. For in fact, as I went on to explain, supervising real legal cases can’t be reduced to lectures or seminars. It’s practical. It’s experiential. It’s happening all the time. The law clinic is open all week and so I, as a supervising law clinician, deal with matters as and when they arise. Live client work doesn’t fit neatly into a 50 minute lecture, or even a 2 hour workshop.
However, some form of formal and scheduled gathering needs to take place. In our law clinic, students are divided into teams (which we call ‘firms’) of six. Each firm has a supervisor, and the students advise clients on the area(s) of law the supervisor specialises in. And each week, the firm and their supervisor get together for an hour in what we call a ‘firm meeting’. At the start of the academic year, everyone decides on a day of the week and time for the firm meeting. Inexplicably, the Tuesday lunchtime slot has been a particular favourite of my students over the years.
“Aha!”, my friend interjected. “Well, you must have tutor notes for each of your firm meetings. You know, firm meeting 1 ‘introduction, firm meeting 2 ‘letter writing’, firm meeting 10 ‘the law on this or that’…. Otherwise, all the supervisors will be doing something different”. And there, in that final line, is the beauty of law clinic teaching. It’s practical. It’s experiential. It’s happening all the time. And so each supervisor and their students are free to make each week’s firm meeting what it needs to be given the time of year, the needs of the students, and the context of the live casework that is progressing.
Last week, my students came back to the clinic after their break. I felt there would be little to gain in doing anything other than taking stock that this is their final ever semester at university(!), catching up with their client cases, and sorting logistical issues. We came back together as a group, got into the swing of things, and had a clear view as to where we we’re going in these final few months.
Next week, something different. We’ll be looking at professional conduct and standards in the legal profession. I usually wait a little longer before explicitly reflecting on professional standards in firm meetings. But I spotted two stories in the press recently. First, the sad tale of a solicitor, qualified only 3 years, who was struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal for dishonesty. The solicitor was found to have falsified policies, and then attendance notes and other correspondence in an attempt to give veracity to the newly created policies. The case highlights how a mistake – and we all make mistakes – can be made entirely worse by trying to cover it. The second article I saw relates to law clinicians themselves. Professor Dorothy Jackson, from Southern University, is likely to find herself suspended for a year without pay for her work on an elderly client’s will through Southern’s Elder Law Clinic. Professor Jackson is alleged to have drafted a will that left $500 a month for Council on Aging Executive Director Tasha Clark-Amar to oversee her estate and trust. The client’s family claimed that the client had been pushed into agreeing the will. Professor Jackson is a Council on Aging Board Member. I am sure my students, now half way through their clinic experience, will have a lot to say about both cases. They will also be bringing along their own articles about lawyers who have got into trouble, and we’ll be sharing these stories and debating the questions they raise.
As I say, I wasn’t intending on tackling professional conduct next week. But I love the flexibility that firm meetings offer. Nothing remains the same – you can’t just roll out the same thing year and after year. Yes, it would be a lot simpler if I had detailed notes telling me what to do each week (I do start the year with a plan, but have found that after week 4/5 I need to be able to react in real time to the needs of students and clients). But I feel a sense of comfort knowing that every time I go into a firm meeting I know its the right one for the right time.
For more about firm meetings, see: Chapter 5 (Working with your supervisor and others) in A Student Guide to Clinical Legal Education and Pro Bono.
In this blog post, I’ve talked about meetings I facilitate. For my take on student-led firm meetings, see: Transferring Power: a reflective exploration of authentic student-centred small group work in clinical legal education