Law Courses: Law students, free at last

American legal courses have for years allowed trainees to learn through pro bono work. Now a similar scheme is being introduced here.
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Most junior lawyers freely admit to nerves when they met their first client. For those working in criminal or civil practice, client interviews are a crucial part of the job - but something the best classroom- based training can never really simulate.

In the United States, law schools make a point of putting students in front of clients, albeit under controlled circumstances. Pro bono - or free - legal services to the community is a mandatory requirement for legal courses registered with the American Bar Association.

In the UK, the pro-bono movement is less established among law schools, but the situation is changing. Law lecturers realise that pro-bono work gives students a unique chance to put their academic training to work, but still with the support of teaching staff and practising lawyers. It is also a chance for law schools and law students to help their communities.

This academic year, the College of Law has tested pro-bono work for students through legal advice clinics run from its London branch. Initially, the programme has been for trainee barristers, but the college plans to extend it to solicitors next year.

Members of the public can make appointments at the College of Law's weekly clinics. The students work in pairs, interviewing the client and establishing the legal issues they face. The students give advice rather than take on full cases; before they give advice, they have to present a report to a barrister who checks it. Clients have come to the college with problems ranging from unfair dismissal to complaints against solicitors.

"It provides students with their first exposure to clients," says Nigel Savage, chief executive of the College of Law. "It shows students that the law is about problem-solving. Clients want to know how to get out of the mess they are in. They are not necessarily interested in the law." The clinics are a practical antidote to the time law students spend on book-based learning.

Students receive no pay for working in the clinics, and they are in addition to their normal studies. Around three-quarters of students on the Bar Vocational Course in London opted to take part this year.

The college does not take on all types of cases. Clients who are eligible for Legal Aid are pointed in that direction, and members of the public who could afford a solicitor but who would rather not pay are screened out. The caseload is generally civil, not criminal law; clients are often referred to the college by a Citizens' Advice Bureau. "The case has to be educationally valuable," explains Adele Cox, clinic director.

Some cases are very simple. In others there is no scope for further action, often because the incident happened too long ago for the client to claim damages. The students write to the client with their advice, and if the case needs to go further, the college has a panel of 60 lawyers who take referrals.

According to Ms Cox, the clinics re-enforce the students' formal learning. Moreover, it puts the work of a lawyer in context. The college uses actors for simulations and exams, but that is no substitute for meeting a real person with real problems. "It is a chance to meet real clients, who are under stress," she says.

Clients might be emotional, or difficult to deal with. Most of all, though, students have to apply their legal knowledge to complex situations. Clients rarely present their cases in the ordered form of a legal casebook.

"The most valuable skill students get from the clinic is working out what are the material facts," says Adele Cox. "Students are presented with a huge flow of information. They have to condense from that the information they need, and why they need it. It is an analysis skill."

Students working in the clinics are aware that it can only boost their job prospects. Competition for pupillages is fierce, and only a minority of Bar students go straight into chambers. This year's students have already made their applications, so they may not gain directly. Even so, they report that working in the advice clinics has been a positive experience.

Both James Corbishley's clients had potential cases for unfair dismissal. In one case, he was able to help, and suggested that the client write a letter to her employer, pointing out clauses in her contract. "We come up with the advice ourselves, but we do have to check it with the barrister," he says.

"Half of it is calming people down and persuading them to tell us what the problem is," Corbishley says. "It is probably very helpful for them: even a small amount of legal advice is better than none. The law is very complicated, and if you have no legal training, it can be quite difficult."

Fellow student Emma King's cases were a claim for compensation following an injury in a criminal incident, and a woman who was concerned about her liability for business debts after a partnership was dissolved. "The course teaches you about the law, and about procedure," she says. "We also have sessions practising conference skills, with actors in place of clients. The advice centre has really brought the two together. In general, it has been the most helpful and useful part of the course."

"The value is that students are seeing real cases and real material and real people," says Adele Cox at the College of Law. "When you are on an academic course, however closely you make it look like a real case, it is not. It is the first time students are face to face with this. It is particularly important for barristers: after six months as a pupil, they have to stand on their own feet. It is good for their analytical skills, good for their research and good for their confidence.