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Experiential learning at legal clinics: a great opportunity for law students

At law school, I participated in a number of extracurricular activities: law review, the cycling association, intramural sports and competitive mooting. However, there was one popular opportunity that I, perhaps regrettably, did not elect to pursue: legal clinics.

At Windsor Law, students can choose to work at Community Legal Aid or Legal Assistance of Windsor. These clinics offer students an unparalleled, experiential learning environment where they can apply their legal skills and work with lower-income clients from the community. I sat down with four students — Nicholas, Scotty, Prakash and Cellina — who were heavily involved in the clinics to gain a little more understanding about their experience.

The following are the questions I asked them.

  1. Why did you opt to work in a clinic setting?

    All four students were looking to gain practical legal experience, from the basic, such as how a client’s file moves along or how to read lease agreements, to the more complex, such as litigating in court. Scotty and Prakash said they lacked this hands-on learning in their everyday coursework, and Nicholas wanted to put the theory to practice. Cellina highlighted her interest in serving disadvantaged members of society that are financially unable to access legal services.

     

  2. What are some of the difficulties with working in a clinic?

     

    Nicholas found that, while clients experienced multiple issues in different areas of the law, the clinic was only able to help with one specific area. He found it frustrating when issues were intertwined and yet he could only address one specific piece. For example, a client may have an issue with social assistance — being cut off from welfare or disability — which, in turn, causes a family law problem. As the clinic does not specialize in family law, it makes it difficult to understand the family issue and, therefore, resolve the social assistance problem.

     

    Scotty echoed Nicholas’ sentiment about the lack of resources.

     

    “We could help clients parse through legal documents and explain their legal problems, but finding suitable and reasonable solutions was difficult,” he said. Not only was it the clinic’s lack of resources that was a problem but the community’s as well.

     

    “For instance, wait lists for social housing are years long, so, although we could find a way for clients to get out of terrible leases, there was nowhere for them to move.”

     

    Prakash was frustrated by the structure of the clinic. He found that, for example, sending a simple letter to a client was an ordeal. As the letters needed to be reviewed by group leaders and review counsel, it would take more than two weeks to send, at which point he was further along in the client’s file. While he conceded that this review system is valid for a student-run clinic, he wished the approval system could be more efficient.

     

  3. What has been the most rewarding?

     

    Each student found the impact on their clients’ lives to be the most rewarding aspect of their work at the clinic. Cellina valued her clients’ appreciation for her work. She especially enjoyed assisting in resolving legal matters for those otherwise unable to do so due to a lack of knowledge about the legal system or financial hardship. Nicholas also appreciated being an advocate for those most in need. Scotty’s most memorable experience involved having a client’s criminal offences withdrawn or dropped by the Crown attorney, as well as getting a client a very favourable order from the Landlord and Tenant Board.

     

  4. Is there anything you regret about the experience? Knowing what you know now, is there anything you would change about your approach to the job?

     

    Once again, the students were united and had no regrets about the experience. For Scotty, it gave her the chance to strengthen her research and writing skills, as well as the opportunity to practice her oral advocacy skills through heavy litigation exposure.

     

    “If I were to do it over again,” she said, “I might try to work a little more effectively. I would try to ask questions or for help sooner, which would eliminate a lot of procrastination or last-minute scrambling.”

     

  5. Did you develop any skills that will translate to articling?

Each student mentioned different takeaways from their time at the clinics. Nicholas learned how to work with others, to empathize and to juggle many different tasks and prioritize them accordingly. Scotty knows to always show up to court prepared and to exhaust all avenues of research before asking for help. Prakash is happy with what he learned, from managing different clients and their expectations to getting creative with the law to help best advocate for his clients.

He said this will provide him with a base for articles, “which I could not imagine getting anywhere else.” 

Like the others, Cellina knows that her experience interacting with clients will be especially helpful during articles. She also found that the clinic opened her eyes to the reccurring legal issues that burden low-income communities. This has inspired her to develop public legal education seminars for community members.

If you are considering applying to a legal clinic, consider what my colleagues had to say. They had no regrets about their decisions and found the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks. Despite heading in different directions, litigation or corporate law, they expressed no better feeling than improving the lives of deserving members of the community. Although I decided to participate in other offerings at law school, I know that legal clinics provide invaluable work experience that will serve my colleagues for years to come.