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.

 

 

 

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

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Think law clinics don’t work together? This post will change your mind

It’s very rare that I get to write about the client work that I supervise in the Student Law Office. If you follow this blog and my twitter posts you would think that the majority of my day is spent going to conferences and writing articles.

Business law clinic

Whilst research is an integral part of my academic life, in reality much of my day to day work is spent supervising final year law students who provide legal advice free of charge to businesses and those looking to set up a business. That supervision takes many forms: discussing the legal and commercial issues face to face in individual and group meetings, reviewing/amending/providing feedback on letters, emails and documents, talking about strategy, making sure that the matter is progressing accordingly and that clients are up to date, dealing with any regulatory or client care procedures. This is just a snapshot of the day to day life of a clinical supervisor. My students have a brilliant blog where they talk about their time in the business law clinic and give hints and tips to businesses on general issues like IP and contracts. But all of the detail behind their legal work – the clients, the specific nature of the enquiries they work on and the outcome of the service we have provided – is protected by confidentiality. Like any other law firm, it must and does remain private and protected, unless the client is happy to talk about their experience in public.

Our client: qLegal

This is why I’m really excited to be able to share a collaborative project that the wonderful Patrick Cahill and I have been working on this year. Patrick works at Queen Mary, University of London, and was instrumental in launching qLegal in 2013. qLegal provides free legal advice, workshops and resources to tech start-up companies and entrepreneurs. Those legal services are provided by high calibre postgraduate law students under the guidance of legal professionals from collaborating law firms and academic staff at the School of Law. You can find out more about qLegal here. 2015-04-15 12.39.45 Patrick and I have built an excellent relationship between our two clinics, which includes teaching visits, sharing  information and client referrals. However, it was at the last iLINC Best Practice Sharing Event that we came up with the idea for a project which would embody the spirit of clinical legal education and bring our two clinics together in a way that had not been done before. Patrick was looking to protect qLegal’s intellectual property. My students regularly provide intellectual property advice so it became obvious to us that the most logical course of action was to bring our clinics together – qLegal as client and the Student Law Office as advisor.

Students at the heart of what we do

The key to the collaboration was the involvement of the students. qLegal students would  represent qLegal (under Patrick’s supervision) and my students would provide the advice (under my supervision). This ensured there were opportunities for both sets of students. But there were also challenges. My students would have to consider how they would approach advising students from another clinic (who were more advanced in terms of their studies). Patrick’s students would have to think about what they needed to do as clients and how to instruct us. The students from qLegal visted the Student Law Office and provided my students with instructions. My students took them through our procedures just like any other client. They then set about researching the relevant issues and preparing their advice. Both sets of students kept in touch via email. Northumbria Law School This week, we travelled to qLegal to deliver our advice face to face and to assist in an application to register a trade mark. Patrick and I sat in on a meeting between our students – qLegal asking important questions and the Student Law Office responding with advice. After submitting an application the students engaged in a round-table discussion about their experience of the project – which I am happy to report was overwhelmingly positive. Both parties were able to reflect on the differences between the clinics: assessed/non-assessed, compulsory/voluntary, postgraduate/undergraduate students. 2015-04-15 11.19.10

Patrick and I are presenting a paper at the International Journal of Clinical Legal Education Conference on this collaborative project in Turkey, July 2015. We hope to share our thoughts on the pedagogic benefits of clinics working in this way, as well some of the logistical elements that need to be put in place before embarking on such a project.

We believe this is first time two business law clinics – or indeed clinics of any nature – have collaborated in this way. We would love to hear whether you have collaborated with another pro bono clinic like this, or indeed any thoughts you might have on this type of project. Please do comment below.