Student-run Legal Clinics Adapt to Coronavirus Pandemic

Pro bono opportunities are harder to come by, but the scope of the work is evolving into capital markets and corporate law

Legal clinics have long been an important opportunity for LL.M. students to gain work experience. Often with a focus on social justice, the clinics provide students with a chance to make a positive impact on some of society’s most vulnerable people.

However, the coronavirus pandemic and shift to remote work has raised a number of problems for legal clinics, which are finding it harder to secure new clients and job opportunities for students, but their scope of work is evolving too.

One example is the Sussex Human Rights Law Clinic, an optional spring module for students on the law school’s LL.M. in International Human Rights Law. The UK clinic’s clients include charities and advocacy groups, such as Amnesty International, Child Rights Connect and Survival International.

Last semester, the clients were already secured, and briefs identified before the pandemic hit, so there was no impact on demand for the clinic’s legal services. But coronavirus posed several challenges for how LL.M. students collaborated.

Stephanie Berry, a senior lecturer in international human rights law at the University of Sussex, says it is much easier if students are able to sit next to each other to work. In doing so they discuss and develop ideas, motivate and support each other. “When students don’t see each other regularly and all contact is via zoom, it is much easier for deadlines to slip or for motivation to wane. Conflict also arises,” she says.

There were pros and cons to the online environment. Students were better able to focus on their individual tasks, which required less collective management. However, some did not pull their weight, requiring others to step in at the last minute and revise the work. “This is really where working next to each other is a benefit as this issue would have been identified and addressed much sooner,” says Berry.

Fewer internships, volunteer positions

The pandemic also hit the job opportunities of her LL.M. students, who report far fewer internships or volunteer positions available in the international human rights law sector, compared to previous years. “Consequently, only students with the highest grades are getting opportunities,” Berry says.

The flip side is that many internships are more accessible that usual, as students are able to do them remotely. “Internships are frequently unpaid or poorly paid — and based in major cities including London. The cost is often prohibitive, so being able to work from home is a real advantage here,” says Berry.

But the supply of human rights lawyers does not appear to meet the demand for the work, with some legal clinics at law schools reporting an uptick in pro bono business. At the University of Bristol’s Law Clinic, which provides justice for the vulnerable while giving students a clinical legal education through worthwhile social service, the number of inquiries from prospective clients has risen because of coronavirus.

A number of the requests concern employment rights amid mass redundancies, while there have also been issues arising from tenants who have been unable or unwilling to return to their property, but are still potentially required to pay rent.

Pro bono work is evolving

More broadly, pro bono work that has traditionally focused on litigation for people who cannot afford legal services is evolving into other types of legal expertise including capital markets and corporate law. That is because finance has become a key problem for charities and NGOs in the pandemic. Yet these financial pressures are also making it harder for law students to find pro bono work, because the NGOs and charities are usually intermediates connecting legal clinics to clients.

For Bristol’s Law Clinic, though, the problems of the pandemic are more administrative in nature: for the past five years the clinic has operated a paper-based filing system, with all records printed and stored on campus in the UK. In early March, when the pandemic struck, the law students raced to transfer all documents online in just 18 days ahead of a nationwide lockdown in the UK.

“This has meant that the service has continued pretty much seamlessly in the vast majority of cases,” says John Peake, a senior lecturer at Bristol’s law school and director of the clinic.

The training new students receive before being allocated any cases has also been moved online. What is more, face-to-face advice has sadly come to an end, so all outreach sessions are cancelled. “This has been regrettable but necessary,” says Peake. “We are now looking at trying to reinstate the outreach sessions, but this can only be on a remote basis for the foreseeable future.”

The same can be said for job opportunities for the clinic’s students. “The chances are reduced,” Peake says. “The obstacles start with the initial application, selection and then training.” Supervision can also be problematic when you do not know the individual or they are new to an organization, he adds. “It is also invidious to bring in volunteers when staff are furloughed or have been made redundant.”

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