Many students come to law school with the mistaken notion that they will learn everything they need to become a lawyer in class — I know I did.
While classes are undoubtedly important for building legal knowledge, as I moved through law school I began to feel that I was getting less and less benefit from class work and began to seek alternatives.
As a law co-op student at the University of Victoria, I have been able to supplement my legal education with work terms across the country. The opportunity to escape the academic confines of law school and put my knowledge and skills to work put my legal education in context. But it wasn’t until my last year of school that I realized I could gain practical skills through UVic’s clinical programs.
In the fall of 2011, I enrolled in the UVic business law clinic. The BLC, founded in 1998, offers a wide range of services to local business people. Clients range from recent university graduates starting business ventures to more established businesses. Clients I worked with at the clinic inquired about risk management, incorporation information, bankruptcy proceedings, and tax planning. After meeting clients, students work in pairs research and write a letter addressing the client’s concerns.
One of the main challenges of clinical work, as well as one of its benefits, is putting legal concepts into language that a non-lawyer will understand. “Our clients come from a variety of backgrounds and they don’t necessarily speak legalese,” says fellow BLC student Ken Overton.
Yet law students are so concerned with thinking and speaking “like a lawyer” that we often overlook the practical nature of legal work. At some point, our knowledge and skills will be applied to real-world situations and clinical work forces us to relate to the demands and expectations of the non-legal world.
The BLC also offers the opportunity to work with local business law practitioners. Throughout the term, practitioners visit the clinic to discuss their areas of practice, including tax, intellectual property, franchise, and bankruptcy. In addition, Bull Housser & Tupper LLP, which sponsors the BLC, brings the class to Vancouver for an all-day seminar on business law issues.
At the beginning of the term, students are assigned a mentor, usually an experienced lawyer based in Victoria. Students can consult their mentor on difficulties with a file and mentors review all client letters before they are released.
Third-year law student Kuyler Neable says he benefited from having a mentor. “One-on-one mentorship from an experienced and practising lawyer is an invaluable component to legal education,” he says. “The BLC is one of the very few opportunities for mentorship of this kind, and it is one of the reasons the BLC stands out from regular law school classes as positively exceptional.”
I found it useful to get feedback from lawyers as opposed to law school professors. While professors may compare work against theoretical models and research papers, practitioners are focused on how work functions in the real world. Rhetoric and purple prose are discouraged. Rather than contemplating remote hypotheticals, students are pushed to consider the practical realities of running a business and the tangible concerns of business people.
Michael Litchfield, acting director of the BLC, explains that the purpose of the clinic is to “provide individuals and organizations who may not have the resources to purchase legal advice with relevant legal information, while allowing students the opportunity to apply their knowledge in a supervised environment but in a real-world context.”
He sees an expanded role for legal clinics like the BLC in the future. “Not only do changing economic circumstances mean more individuals and organizations cannot afford legal advice, but changes within legal education and calls from the profession and students for more practical legal education mean a move towards the expansion of legal clinics such as the BLC.”
As the cost of legal services remains a barrier to many people, including small business owners, clinical work could play an increasingly important role in the delivery of legal services.
I’ve found my work at the BLC to be a unique and instructive supplement to more traditional law classes, and I would recommend clinical experience to law students who seek a more hands-on learning experience.
Michael Oxman is a third-year law student at the University of Victoria.