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Law students in the community

In this article from the Autumn 2002 issue of Directions Hugh Brayne (University of Sunderland) provides an account of the Law in the Community module, where 2nd year LLB students are engaged in placements in the community.


Should legal education providers get involved in community legal services? In seeking an answer let’s start with a statement that – at least I imagine – would be hard to disagree with. This is what the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct (ACLEC), in its 1996 report on legal education, said law teachers should provide:

A broad and intellectually demanding legal education, attuned to the context and needs of a modern European democracy.

Readers of that report will recall the heavy emphasis on the responsibility that lawyers, and those educated in law, have to maintain the rule of law. Our graduates must understand not just laws but justice, liberties, social issues, political and economic forces; they must have (I paraphrase) a concern for the lives of the citizens whose well being is contained and nurtured within a framework of democratic respect for the legal order. Our graduates need a liberal enquiring and wide ranging experience to undertake this task, whatever their eventual role in society. They must be ready to be leading citizens.

But is it enough to develop understanding of these issues? Or is legal education – all education – about students as people, as well as developing their understanding, knowledge and abilities? Are we tasked with developing future citizens who care, who are committed to justice and able to empathise with those whom the law affects? If so, knowledge and intellectual abilities are not enough. Attitudes must be developed, emotions engaged, and practical skills harnessed.

Another starting point in looking for an answer to my question is whether we should engage in the mission of the institutions we work in. Not atypically, mine (Sunderland) is committed to partnership with the community, with employers, businesses and individuals.

So, for the sake of brevity, let’s assume that you agree law students should engage, for their own development and as part of their/our obligations to the community.

How do we do it? Here is a brief account of a module called Law in the Community, offered to LLB students in the second year of our new degree programme. The outcomes – tied in at the design stage to match law benchmarks – require students to develop descriptive, critical, and personal skills, the latter including legal research and communication. But these could apply to any law subject. What is different is the context in which they do this; that they are required to engage in some aspect of legal services within the community.

The challenge in setting up this module was twofold; how to provide all students with these opportunities, and how to create the opportunities for them to demonstrate their achievement for assessment purposes.

The option of setting up an in-house clinic was not available for resource reasons, although European and Legal Services Commission funding in partnership with a citizens advice bureau could change this and is being pursued. I needed to export the problem of getting students the experience. Finding community partnerships was not as difficult as I feared. I was welcomed with enthusiasm into the Sunderland Community Legal Service Partnership – indeed the CLSP has subsequently boasted of its unique working relationship with the university.

My request to the members of CLSP – a range of voluntary advice and community organisations, together with statutory bodies, the local authority and the Legal Services Commission – for placements was generously met. I was able to place students singly, in pairs or threes into organisations such as the mediation service, a community advice and resource project, Age Concern, a refugee service and the Legal Services Commission. Additionally, all students were offered a chance to sit in at least once on a solicitor’s afternoon new client intake and to chat to the solicitor about his/her work and its context. All students also observed and eventually delivered classes in citizenship at a local secondary school, mainly focusing on youth crime procedures.

This – to put it mildly – got students involved. The evidence for this includes the fact that most did not stop engaging even when the module stopped. Many are engaged over the summer and in their final year in the same or another organisation. Some students not on the module asked for and got placements. Many developed links with organisations which have had career-changing outcomes – examples include offers of a training contract, a change of career into teaching, and full training as a CAB volunteer and member of a youth justice panel.

Assessment is the other challenge. The students’ main interest was in the placement activities; these gave status, experience and motivation, but could not be objectively assessed. I still have much to learn about managing this process, but would stick with a combination of group work (which ensures sharing of experience) and individual work, an emphasis on high standards of legal underpinning to written work and a requirement to reflect on the experience throughout.

I wanted students to evaluate their experiences within a critical framework, but perhaps this is too ambitious, since I cannot expect students to develop these skills within the module as well as to achieve the other outcomes. I insisted on a great deal of formative development – that I see draft work and that they respond to the comments before revising and submitting it. This ensured my own engagement in the formative learning they were deriving from assessments – bearing in mind they were writing about experiences and research which I was not myself privy to – as well as providing a learning and teaching opportunity which, even for second year students, is necessary, as they still do not often know how to write and argue.

Are there any downsides? Of course. I spent quite a lot of time on my bike going round to meet students on placement and their hosts. I spent a lot of time on e-mail and phone calls dealing with queries. I have to hold hands sometimes; I had to offer to provide a series of courses to Age Concern as a sort of collateral guarantee in order to give the students the confidence to commit to providing these. (As it happened my gamble paid off and my services were not called on.) This summer I have had to do the rounds to increase the placement opportunities in line with a projected threefold increase in student numbers (15 up to over 40). But these external contacts are invigorating, and often an opportunity to forge new friendships and useful contacts.

Teaching in this way is not for everyone. Not everyone welcomes the absence of predictability. Although we have scheduled classes every week – and a very good turnout rate – I don’t always know what is going to be covered, since the students’ experience dictates much of the discussion. My role, as well as organising and trouble shooting, is to try to channel the energy – not all but at least some – along traditional paths of academic rigour, research, analysis and presentation.

The feedback after one year has been beyond my expectation. This module has changed lives as well as enhanced learning. At a modest level it has enhanced career prospects. But it goes deeper. The evidence from the students’ weekly journals, and what they tell me and tell others, is that these students have developed self confidence, gained better insights into their own learning processes, enhanced their relationship skills and, without a doubt, their communication skills; and they know, through direct feedback from those they have worked with, that they themselves are making a difference to real people.

Last Modified: 9 July 2010