Increasing Experiential Education is Not a Remedy for the Broken Legal Services System – Thoughts from the U.K.

The lack of available legal representation for low income persons is a persistent problem, and not only in the U.S. Cuts to legal services programs have been deep in England and Wales, where access to civil legal aid has fallen by more than half.

In a recent post, a Solicitor Tutor at Northumbria University, Newcastle, lauds U.K. law schools for increasing clinical opportunities for students, but cautions against using them to attempt to fill the increased need for pro bono legal services. Her message is both important and familiar:

But what we mustn’t do is look upon law schools as a replacement for legal aid, or a sticking plaster for a somewhat bruised legal system.

We cannot forget that this is clinical legal education, designed to give law students the opportunity to hone their practical legal skills, to experience what it is like to sit opposite a real person with a real issue and help them solve a problem. They need to understand how the cases and legislation they learn about in the classroom truly affect individuals and organisations – and to reflect meaningfully on their personal strengths and weaknesses.

Thankfully, we may have moved beyond this corrective conversation in the U.S., where the ABA requires 6 credits of experiential education for all students graduating from accredited law schools, starting very soon. The ABA mandate is intended to improve educational outcomes, not to fill the void for legal services. Experiential courses are explicitly required to integrate and develop legal doctrine, skills, and values through faculty-supervised performances and self-assessments (ABA Standard 303(a)(3)). In contrast, pro bono opportunities “need not be structured to accomplish any of the outcomes required by Standard 302” (Interpretation 303-3). While there is often a wonderful overlap between clinical courses/field placements and public service, it is nice to see the distinction between them articulated by the ABA.

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One Response

  1. “… intended to improve educational outcomes, not to fill the void for legal services …” Indeed, it is a bit like letting the student surgeon “experiment” on the lower income classes whereas the better off get sewn together correctly … That said, though, I must say that there may well be a niche (and a large one) for experiential legal training as well as helpful services for those in need. Most (I’d say 90%!) of the “work” is really to get these often poorly educated people to even open letters, note the dates received, understand the statute of limitations, understand which remedies are available (if any), when not to file a case (!) because one doesn’t even have “standing” etc. etc. Often this work is done by social workers, not lawyers and often enough it is not done too well. Of course, this will provide little experiential training, much as applying band-aids would to enhance the skills of a surgeon. But on another note it might give future prosecutors, judges, legislators and attorneys in high-flying practices an insight into how little the average population can understand “legalese” and how these institutions should better communicate with those they are -also- meant to bring justice to, one way or another.

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