A legal clinic with a difference

  • Subtitle: Students at Western can get hands-on business law experience
Written by  Justin Dick Posted Date: July 25, 2011
WBLC summer staff (l to r): Justin Dick, Ryan Hayes, Katherine Serniwka, Charlotte Cameron, and Jonathan Thoburn.
WBLC summer staff (l to r): Justin Dick, Ryan Hayes, Katherine Serniwka, Charlotte Cameron, and Jonathan Thoburn.
For the typical law student, late nights surrounded by textbooks and jargon-laden judgments are all too familiar. Navigating the incredible volume of assigned readings and adjusting to a new and unfamiliar exam style is part of the challenging transition that every law student must endure. This process teaches valuable time-management skills and arms them with the critical foundations of a legal education, but amid this hectic pace law students rarely think or behave like actual lawyers. Students seeking a more practical element to their education must find it outside of the classroom, and students at the University of Western Ontario’s law faculty have been doing just that.

The Western Business Law Clinic is a prime example of how students are enriching the law school experience beyond the classroom. The WBLC works with small businesses, startups, and entrepreneurs to provide them with legal services that they would otherwise be unable to afford. At the same time, the clinic’s student staff get the invaluable experience of working with actual clients.

During the academic year, the clinic is staffed by 36 Western law students who work in teams of three with a representative from each year. Student volunteers are hired in first year for a three-year commitment, so their experience within the clinic can evolve. Students in first year perform mostly research; second years get to fulfil a leadership role as file manager; and third years use their previous experience to advise their colleagues in a supervisory and consultative capacity.

Since the clinic’s day-to-day operations are run entirely by students who are not yet licensed legal professionals, the WBLC has formed relationships with mentor lawyers in the community who review all client deliverables prior to the closing of a file. In addition, faculty supervisors at Western law give direction to students during the research and drafting phase, ensuring the clinic’s work is of the highest quality.

Each team of students typically takes on one major project per academic term. Examples of assigned projects include assisting a new business with incorporation, drafting a shareholder agreement or employment contract, working with trademarks, and much more.

Traditional legal-aid-type clinics are becoming increasingly common in Canadian law schools, and provide a superb learning opportunity for students interested in areas such as family law, criminal law, and litigation. In contrast, the WBLC’s focus on assisting small-business clients in the wide realm of corporate law provides students with a particularly unique experience. This summer, the WBLC has assisted clients ranging from an online LSAT tutoring company to a community tennis club, and the students are overwhelmingly positive about the experience.

“Acting as an associate case manager for the WBLC has given me an excellent opportunity to complement my classroom learning with practical experience. The chance to work with and better understand the needs of corporate clients has been invaluable in preparing for my legal career,” says Ryan Hayes, a second-year student at UWO law.

Although the complexity of the work can vary, it is always an enlightening experience for students who are, usually for the first time, working for a real client. Prior to being approved, prospective clients must submit a business plan and attend an intake meeting where the clinic’s student directors determine if the clinic can assist the client with their legal needs.

For law students, classroom success is paramount, but with the plethora of opportunities for extracurricular involvement available at the schools, students shouldn’t miss out on getting some practical element to their legal education. Working with an actual client highlights what you really need for a successful law career, such as good communication skills and professionalism. Since such skills are often underemphasized in the traditional exam format, students who have participated in clinical work can confidently say they have maximized their opportunities while in school, preparing themselves for success as interviewees, young lawyers, and beyond.

Justin Dick is a second-year law student at the University of Western Ontario and co-director of the Western Business Law Clinic.

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