I worked from home last Thursday. I spent just over five hours dealing with two letters of advice. Typing this now, I realise this sounds ridiculous. How could two letters take that much time? ‘Surely, you’re not that incompetent or have such poor time management?’, I hear you cry.
At the start of the academic year, when I first meet my students, I make a gentle suggestion: use this opportunity as much as possible, because time will fly.
Indeed it has. 6 months after I introduced myself to this year’s clinic students, we are fast approaching the end of term. My 12 students will leave our clinic on 3rd May 2018. They will hand in their portfolios, two reflective essays, and – importantly – the passes that allow access to the office.
It’s Spring Break here in the UK, so I’m not seeing my students quite as much as usual. Although I welcome the opportunity to get my head down and try to get through an ever-increasing pile of administrative tasks, I find myself missing their company. I am often disturbed by an ‘urgent’ request (that doesn’t turn out to be quite as urgent) or a head popping round my door for reassurance about a case. The colleagues I share an office with are on annual leave or working from home; it is strange how my room is filled by the sound of my typing, rather than the buzz of student and staff interaction (there is usually much laughter).
A quiet space for reflection
Clinic work continues, however.
I worked from home last Thursday. I spent just over five hours dealing with two letters of advice. Typing this now, I realise this sounds ridiculous. How could two letters take that much time? ‘Surely, you’re not that incompetent or have such poor time management?’, I hear you cry. And yes, back in private practice, I probably could have written similar letters in a couple of hours. But this is not private practice; this is clinical legal education.
First, I review the letter generally, noting any thoughts I might have about content and style. I double-check legal points. This takes longer than you would expect – I’m not the legal Wikipedia some people expect when you say you’re a solicitor. Then I start attaching written feedback. I like to use comment boxes down the side of the letter – praising sections that work well, phrases that are client-friendly, and appropriate structural choices. I also use comment boxes to highlight parts of the letter I may have amended, especially if I’ve made a change based on my experience of how a client might read a sentence, or react to advice. I think its important to say that to our students, rather than leave them thinking they’ve done something ‘wrong’. I add overarching feedback either to the top or bottom of the letter, with a summary of the key points to be addressed in the next draft, or a note confirming the letter can be sent to the client. Where a letter includes complex advice, or advice covering multiple areas of law, a review and feedback session can take over 2 hours. The two letters I reviewed on Thursday covered at least 8 legal issues.
The quiet space of my office today has prompted me to reflect on the amount of work we have done this year. It is, above all, a team effort. My students meet the client, take instructions, conduct the research, write the letters, draft the documents, open the file, and close the file. But I am there in the background; a listening ear, a reviewer of work, a sign pointing ‘that way’ when pathways emerge.
What areas of law have we covered this year?
My 12 students are divided into two teams of six, each team known as a ‘firm’. Over the course of this year, my two firms have assisted four clients. For obvious reasons, I am not able to provide a detailed run-down of the legal work we have provided this year. But I thought it would be interesting to give a general overview of the areas of law my students have researched.
We dealt with five key themes this year. An overarching theme – something which we often mention to clients even if they don’t explicitly ask – is choice of business structure. My experience is that people use the word ‘company’ to mean ‘business’, and many clients we have advised over the years have erroneously believed they owned or were a director of an incorporated company.
Websites continue to be a key area of interest for our clients. Website operators need to adhere to a whole host of requirements, often linking to contractual issues such as selling online or intellectual property.
And then, I thought, I wonder how much written feedback I’ve given…
Having made the areas of law infographic, I was then compelled to look at the number of documents I’ve reviewed since last October. This may also be an admin-avoiding tactic, but let’s not mention that…
Disclaimer alert: the figures in my infographic are approximations. I have tried as far as possible to avoid counting duplicates (sometimes students send me a letter and I save it twice – a version for the client, and a version with feedback for the student). Save opening up every document in Word, and checking, I can’t guarantee I haven’t counted a document twice. However, if anything, I may have under-counted in an attempt to avoid this issue. This infographic doesn’t include emails I’ve reviewed.
I still think this infographic gives a good ‘sense’ of the significant amount of review and feedback through the course of 6 months. And this is only written feedback…. and I’m expecting four more letters to land in my inbox shortly…
In truth, sometimes entire days checking documents and giving feedback are difficult. I often feel I have spent large amounts of time with not much to show. My emails pile up. My research is ignored. As a supervisor, on a hard day, the work I do in the clinic can feel invisible. But, then I am reminded of the many members of our local community – our clients – that we have helped. And I think of my students and what they might take away from the experience. I hope they have enjoyed our time together. I will miss them when they’re gone.