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.




National Teaching Fellowship

Regular readers will know that last year I was lucky enough to be selected by my institution to apply for a National Teaching Fellowship award. I am delighted that, in my first blog post of 2017, I am able to report that I did it – I’m now an NTF! Well, I will be once I’ve been to the super glam awards ceremony in a few weeks’ time.

You can read my NTF profile here. And, the news release here.

This post is not about blowing my own trumpet. I’ve had an abundance of hugs, emails, very lovely words, and lots of ‘very proud”s from my mum. I’m definitely feeling all the love (if I was inclined to put emoticons in blog posts there would be a large smiley face here).

Instead, I want to do two things:

  1. Thank everyone who supported me on my NTF journey; and
  2. Encourage others who don’t think they could possibly go for an award like this to jolly well go ahead and do it.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, you need a team

On page 1 of my NTF application, I told a story. A real one, set way back when I started my first teaching role. I wrote about the members of staff that filled 21 year old me with confidence. Confidence to walk into a room and teach students often much older than myself. Confidence to design seminars and workshops on topics I had just got to grips with. Confidence to speak up in meetings which, even now, I would find intimidating.

I was out there, doing my thing, day to day in the classroom. Little, 21 year old me. At the front of the room, walking round the tables, encouraging participation, discouraging disruptive behaviour, and probably making awful jokes (I like to make jokes, which teacher doesn’t?). When I look back now, I realise I was never alone in any of the classrooms I frequented. I was enveloped, cushioned you might say, by an invisible bubble of mentorship. The sort of mentoring that doesn’t announce itself, but quietly, stealthily builds you up and shapes who you are. Now, aged 36, I’m fortunate to still be in receipt of the mentorship ‘bubble’. I’m surrounded by colleagues who help me find my direction, who model excellent practice, and who provide practical and emotional support.

And, throughout the years, there have been countless teams, with countless members, encouraging, supporting, laughing, crying, having a good whinge, providing solutions, rolling metaphorical sleeves up, sharing the load. Being there. You don’t get to where you are alone. I certainly didn’t. Thank you.

You could make a wish, or you could make it happen

I was sat on the left-hand side of an East Coast train carriage, next to the window, in a two seater when I started following the NTF twitter account. A slightly fuzzy memory – as it’s an old one – but it’s there, fixed in my brain. I can smell the dusky seat covers. I can feel the phone in my hand, and my OH’s leg pressed up next to mine. I can see me scrolling through the enthusiastic tweets on learning and teaching, and I can sense the longing to join in. But I didn’t. I sat there and scrolled and read and dreamed about being a part of the NTF community.

As I’ve said before, I nearly didn’t put an application in.  And you know what? That application was tough. Night upon night on the sofa, candles burning, music on, crafting something that embodied what I was about. Worrying that something that embodied what I was about might raise eyebrows, or be totally off the boil. Revising, rewriting, cutting bits out, digging hard to say – eloquently – what came so naturally to mind but could not for some reason make it out on to the laptop keyboard. I’m unsure I’ll ever produce such an intense piece of work in that sort of timescale again.

Just getting to the point of submission was a major achievement. Honestly (really honestly) I didn’t expect to be successful, and I felt absolutely fine about that. I was in my PJs when I got the news. I walked upstairs, into the bedroom, stared at my OH and said ‘Guess who’s an NTF?’. And then I made him read the email just in case I’d got it wrong.

Dreams do come true sounds a bit too schmaltzy – even for me. But, what I do know is that things don’t happen unless you give them a go. So do it. Just go on and do it. It may not work. Heck, most of my stuff never does. But every now and again, it might. It just might.

Photo, Jesmond Dene, Newcastle upon Tyne (c) Elaine Campbell, 2016 

Like Ghostbusters’ Dr Jillian Holtzmann, we too can be quirky and successful

Two weeks ago I was in New York City, presenting a paper at the International Legal Ethics Conference. I stayed on for a few extra days in that wonderful city. And (amongst theatre visits, running along the Hudson River, and eating the most gorgeous pizza in Hell’s Kitchen),  I visited locations featured in the 1984 film Ghostbusters.

Ghostbusters is a childhood favourite of mine. I must have watched it 100 plus times. It was one of the first DVDs I bought. I quote it at length, at random moments. Last September, when we visited New York for the first time, Mark and I sought out ‘Spook Central’, the apartment block where Rick Moranis’s Louis Tully and Sigourney Weaver’s Dana Barrett live (and – spoiler alert – where the final fight scene with Mr Stay Puft takes place).

This time, I really went for it. I realised my hotel was only 10 minutes from Columbia University, from which Drs Venkman and Stanz are unceremoniously ejected. Next to the beautiful fountain and library steps, the Drs concoct a plan to set up in business as catchers of spectral forces. As a child (and in every subsequent viewing), I saw Bill Murray sitting on a wall outside the Columbia University library drinking from a bottle – and thought he was the coolest human being I had ever come across. I sat on that very wall (and some others just in case I’d got it wrong) and was overcome with pure joy (see photo for said joyfulness – and evidence I’m no good at rubbing in suncream). Later, I went back to Spook Central.  And I did a twirl a la Dr Venkman outside the Met Opera fountain – just like many other people it seems! I didn’t do the jumpy foot dance though. Not cool enough for that.

It’s just a film, right? Yes. It is. And it’s blatant nostalgia on my part. I totally accept that. But it means something to me.

So, when I went to see the new Ghostbusters film (the one with – shock horror – women in) I wondered how I would feel about it. I entered the cinema wishing the filmmakers, cast and crew well, not least because of all of the completely unnecessary rubbish they’ve been forced to endure. But I really didn’t know what my reaction would be.

I exited the cinema with one thought. I loved Dr Jillian Holtzmann. Played by Kate McKinnon, Holtzmann is an expert scientist, creating spectacular gadgets and stunning equipment for the Ghostbusters crew. She’s also, as director Paul Feig has said, a ‘glorious weirdo’. She is pure quirk. She says what she thinks without affectation. Her gear (those googles! that jacket!) is thrown-together-stylish. Her stance is empowered and confident, yet she’ll kick her legs up on the table whilst she’s working because, hey, she’s just more comfortable that way. Importantly, she is completely at ease with herself. And clever, successful, inspiring, practical, and innovative. In short, she is all the Professor I aspire to be.


She’s the one on the right. I may strike this pose walking into lectures. 

Before I went to New York, I spent every evening frantically drafting my National Teaching Fellowship application. Whilst I was away, the application would go through an internal review process, and it wasn’t until my last day in the Big Apple that I heard the outcome.

Initially, I had deleted the email containing the call for applications. I kept thinking about it, but hesitated. But after being asked for the third time whether I was going to go for it, I finally took the hint, and decided I would.

What made me hesitate? Confidence (or rather lack of) was certainly a factor. I looked at the criteria and the other NTFs and wondered if I was good enough. But alongside this, I had decided that if I was going to write 5000 words about excellence – individual, raising the profile of, and developing – then I wanted to write using my voice, and (to borrow from Frank) my way.  In essence, my plan was to let rip the glorious weirdo, rather than create a document which dispassionately observed achievements and goals.  And I wondered whether this would be an exercise in futility. Academia has funny old thoughts about writing in your own voice. We reject (and/or perhaps fear?) the use of ‘I’ in our academic work. Our creative, subjective expressions of self seem to get crushed, right from the word go.

But I put this all to the back of my head and got writing.

An example of utilising my own voice? Well, part of the application requires you to evidence your commitment to ongoing professional development in teaching and learning and/or learning support. At first I did what I suspect most people would do and started to list all of staff seminars, CPD days, conferences etc. I’ve ever attended. Then I deleted it, and started again. Because, let’s be honest, some sessions we go to are useful, and some are not. Listing all the sessions I’ve ever been to does not evidence my commitment to ongoing professional development. Quite frankly, all that sort of list does is evidence commitment to attending events which promise tea and biscuits (or sometimes – gasp – cake).  So I wrote that (although not the bit about the refreshments). I wrote that I’d started writing a big long list, but that didn’t evidence my commitment to developing my own practice. What really develops my practice? Random conversations in corridors about trying new teaching activities. Going up to a speaker after their conference paper, teasing out the issues, and then following up with an email or phone call to work out possible collaborations. Watching a colleague handle a room of disgruntled, nervous students and replicating her strategies. Catching up over a cuppa (those refreshments again). Arranging a writing day with my PhD Buddy. I wrote about that. Like I’ve just done here.

And you know what? They liked it. In fact, one reviewer said they loved it (!). That bit about professional development – the bit I thought the panel would either roll their eyes at or dismiss kindly as ‘engaging, but not scholarly’ – got the highest praise out of the whole thing. So, I am thrilled to say that my application is now in the hands of the reviewers at the Higher Education Academy. And I am thrilled that it represents me. The proper me. With a large dollop of quirk. And also successful, creative, practical, and clever.

Who are you going to call? Well, that’s easy. Call on yourself – you’re the best person for the job.