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Access to justice and clinical legal education | Cate White

Thursday, November 05, 2020 @ 9:38 AM | By Cate White

Cate White %>
Cate White
Last week, as I was tutoring a first-year law student for her upcoming contracts midterm, she asked me why anyone would want to go into a legal practice that involves contracts after spending first year befuddled by the abstracted concepts of offer, acceptance, consideration, warranty, parole evidence, etc. I had to break it to her that in most practice areas of law she would likely bump into some of these contract principles.

However, I also assured her that it would all start to make more sense when it became applied and practical. In my assurance, I referenced my experience this semester with the Business Law Clinic (BLC) at the University of Victoria Faculty of Law.

The goals of the BLC are twofold: to provide students with the opportunity to develop legal skills through practical and hands-on legal education; and, to provide access to justice for small businesses in Victoria. After my experience as a student at the BLC this past semester, I would like to reflect on both of these goals, particularly in the context of COVID-19, which has caused a massive shift in both legal education and in the legal needs of the community.

First: the value of clinical legal education. Since the summer, I have had a dual role as both a student and a quasi-educator. Over the summer, I was a research assistant for the UVic Faculty of Law and much of my work was to prepare professors for the massive shift to online education due to COVID-19. This semester, I am working as both a peer tutor for first-year law students and as a teaching assistant for an upper-year law course. The professors for whom I’ve been working with want to know: what helps students understand a legal concept? How can professors keep students engaged now that they are interacting with their legal education through a screen all day?

In my humble opinion, the answer to these questions is clinical legal education. The opportunity to experience real-live legal problems at the BLC and manage how they interact across messy and complex human problems — such as emotional, financial and relationship issues — has been an invaluable experience for me. This clinical experience has provided me with the opportunity to conduct a client interview and research a real and complex legal issue, all while remaining client-focused.

These practical experiences are supplemented by my clinical director, Michael Litchfield, who provides us with weekly lectures on practical issues such as client management and legal insurance. This is the first and likely only time that a practitioner is teaching me about the actual practice of law as part of my formal legal education in law school.

After spending the summer grappling with how to properly teach students online, I am convinced that clinical legal education should be at the forefront of our imagination of legal education in the future. The shift to online legal education has welcomed the legal community to reflect on the arcane ways that law students are educated in law school. I find it challenging to tutor first-year law students when they have nothing practical to grab onto.

It is further frustrating that it appears to be common knowledge that legal education does not adequately prepare you for articling or legal practice. Even if a person intends to stay in the legal academy, an understanding of how law operates on the ground is integral to legal theory and scholarship.

Unfortunately, these issues in legal education are not new; however, I believe that this sudden shift to online teaching provides legal educators with an opportunity to reimagine the ways that they approach the teaching of future lawyers and legal scholars. This reimagination should include more opportunities for students to access hands-on clinical education.

Second: the access to justice element of clinical education is important to situate within the broader context of Canada’s legal system. Before my experience with the BLC, I considered access to justice as an issue that largely affected individuals at the margins. The BLC has shown me that access to justice is limited even in the business community. I now realize that it is an issue that intersects across classes and sectors in Canada.

While access to justice is an essential part of the BLC, it has led me to an ethical question: to what extent should students be filling the gaps in legal access? The BLC has been an integral learning opportunity for me, but it has also demonstrated the limits of law students in improving access to justice. We cannot provide legal advice and students in the clinic often feel helpless to fully resolve some of the legal issues with which they are confronted. The limits of student legal research demonstrate to me the area where the legal community needs to become more involved in both legal education and access to justice.

As we imagine a shift in legal education towards clinical education, we must also imagine a shift in the way that the profession engages with law students. This would ensure that legal education clinics are fulfilling both the goals of practical legal education while also ethically filling the gaps in access to justice.

This year has been challenging for all of us due to COVID-19. However, I am hopeful that the challenges we have been faced with can inspire the legal profession to imagine new ways of educating law students.

As I finish up my final year of law school and head into articling, I look forward to working towards a renewed future of clinical legal education.

Cate White is a JD candidate at the University of Victoria Faculty of Law where she also works as a teaching assistant and a tutor for first-year law students. She holds a bachelor of arts in political science with an honours concentration in political theory. Prior to law, Cate worked in public and non-profit consulting and participated in the British Columbia Legislative Internship Program. She can be reached via her LinkedIn profile.

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