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Alexandra Philippot, student with the L. Kerry Vickar Business Law Clinic

Virtual University of Manitoba legal clinic seeks to help struggling businesses

Wednesday, March 17, 2021 @ 3:01 PM | By Terry Davidson


If any good has come out of the pandemic for Manitoba’s Robson Hall law school, it has been the birth of a virtual, student-run legal clinic for struggling small businesses, non-profits and other similar ventures needing pro bono advice.

The L. Kerry Vickar Business Law Clinic, named after a University of Manitoba law grad who went on to become a prominent businessman, is currently run by 26 third-year law students and overseen by two faculty members.

According to its website, the clinic also serves arts, cultural and community organizations that “do not have a lawyer and cannot afford legal assistance in Manitoba.”

“Students will provide information, advise, choose and form business entities, draft legal documents, and conduct legal research, regulatory compliance, good governance, stakeholder activism, and social responsibility,” it states.

 Nick Slonosky, co-supervisor of the clinic

Nick Slonosky, L. Kerry Vickar Business Law Clinic

The students, who work in pairs, are currently dealing with 18 “complex matters,” according to sessional instructor Nick Slonosky, who supervises the clinic along with faculty of law program advisor on special projects Lisa Fainstein.
 
Each student is recognized by Manitoba’s law society as being a student of law and able to practise, so long as it is under qualified supervision, Slonosky told The Lawyer’s Daily.  

Before COVID-19, he said, the clinic took on a different form: It was limited to 12 students, whose practical experience came from going out to law firms and shadowing lawyers during client meetings.

But then the health crisis hit, triggering many firms to shutter and go virtual.  

“It was the students who said we need some practical experience,” said Slonosky. “But how do you do that when everything is shut down? So, late last year … we decided, given student demand, we’ll see what we can do. We can’t use law firms, so we’ve created a 100 per cent, fully digital, totally virtual business law clinic … and rather than go to a law firm to shadow a lawyer to see how they deal with [clients], we’ve got our own clients.”

 Lisa Fainstein

Lisa Fainstein, L. Kerry Vickar Business Law Clinic

Slonosky and Fainstein provide the oversight, while a group of outside lawyers volunteers as mentors to the students, guiding them as they navigate clients’ issues and tackle their questions.  

Slonosky likens the clinic to a virtual law firm of the future.

“Everything is virtual. [They] meet with the clients by Zoom. We meet with the students online, after they’ve met with clients. Sometimes we sit in on their client meetings. [The students] provide live service to live clients who need some help, and there’s a lot of intergenerational dialogue and mentorship that goes along with that. Even though we have no doors or windows, we also, in this case, given the quality of the Internet, have no barriers. So, where we used to just do this in Winnipeg, we’ve opened it up.”

Now, he said, the clinic is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, so long as they are based in Manitoba.

Fainstein spoke of mentorship.

“Once we get problems that need expertise, we can partner the student with a mentor lawyer — for example in intellectual property — and let the two of them … work out that kind of problem to make sure that the clients are not getting anything but professional product.”

 Student Alexandra Philippot

Law student Alexandra Philippot, L. Kerry Vickar Business Law Clinic

Student Alexandra Philippot’s thirst for practical experience and interest in business, tax and real estate law led her to participate.

“One great thing about the clinic is we’re able to apply all the knowledge we’ve [gained] over the last few years of law school,” said Philpott, whose academic background includes psychology and French. “We’re able to, OK, see how this fits into this problem. The clinic helps us to fill this gap. … We get to learn communication skills and client management, and that’s very important to the practice of law. Yes, knowing the law is important, but so are those skills.”

Philpott also talked of the satisfaction felt from closing a file for a happy client.

“It’s very satisfying and gratifying to be able to assist the client, when they say, thank you for your help, I appreciate this.”

Slonosky was asked in what instances an applicant for help would be turned down.

He said the clinic is unable to serve someone who already has a lawyer, and that it does not do litigation of any kind. The students are also unable to take on anything requiring court action — a business or organization attempting to pursue a debt, for example.

The clinic must also steer clear of cases involving other jurisdictions.  

Applicants fill out an online intake form. If they are taken on as clients, it is under a “limited scope retainer.” And students must see a case to its end — as is required by the Law Society of Manitoba, said Slonosky.   

On April 7, the students will deliver a free webinar titled Legal Fundamentals for Start-Ups, which will cover the basic legal components for starting a business, such as registering a business, shareholder agreements, contracts and employees.

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for The Lawyer’s Daily, please contact Terry Davidson at t.davidson@lexisnexis.ca or call 905-415-5899.