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We recently held a virtual discussion forum to consider the role of law school clinics, and how volunteering can enhance the student experience.
We were joined by Laura Pinkney, Head of the Nottingham Law School Legal Advice Centre at Nottingham Trent University - the first SRA regulated law firm integrated into a law school in the UK. Laura, together with one of her students, Matilda Kapala, explained how the Legal Advice Centre provides students with unique opportunities to develop practical skills and improve their employability within a supportive environment.
A snap poll at the start of the event revealed that 86% of law courses now provide opportunities for students to work in legal aid clinics such as the one at Nottingham Law School. The biggest benefit of providing such opportunities for students is considered to be “real life case experience with support”.
In other words, most law courses now seem to be actively supporting their students in terms of preparing them for their future legal careers, rather than solely focusing on academic outcomes.
Although most universities offer some level of access to practical experience, Laura noted that the Nottingham Law School Legal Advice Centre - which obtained an Alternative Business Licence (ABS) in 2015 - is an almost unique model, only shared with one or two other universities. She highlighted the importance of practical skills for budding lawyers and that being a good lawyer is more than just knowing the letter of the law.
Running a law firm within the university has provided students with increased access to the wide array of legal practice areas, including those which are regulated and would therefore not be available in a law clinic which was not SRA accredited. Areas of law covered by the Centre include: employment, housing and welfare benefits, family, IP and criminal. Some of the work students are able to undertake includes:
There are also opportunities for qualifying work experience (QWE), which can go towards the SQE.
One of the key benefits of students working in the Legal Advice Centre, according to Laura, is that it helps to build their confidence. This increased confidence derives from contact with clients and the experience of achieving tangible outcomes on behalf of their clients. It also helps them to appreciate how legal practice differs from academic theory, complementing their academic studies.
Matilda also highlighted that the welcoming environment at Nottingham Law School’s Legal Advice Centre, with fellow students and solicitors always happy to provide advice, quickly allayed any concerns over lack of prior legal experience, and helped give her confidence that she wanted to pursue a legal career.
In addition to confidence building, both Laura and Matilda discussed the importance of ‘real-world’ legal experience for developing crucial skills that future employers look for. In particular:
In addition to gaining valuable commercial and societal awareness, students who experienced working at the Centre also had better academic outcomes, with 97% obtaining a 2:1 or a 1st, compared to 74% of those who didn’t work at the Centre.
Source: Nottingham Law School Legal Advice Centre, Annual Report 2020, p.20.
Matilda discussed how working in the Legal Advice Centre brought her understanding of the law and working to a different level, which she could then apply back to her academic studies and coursework.
As well as students benefiting from the Centre, lecturers are also able to get involved. There are a large number of practitioner academics who are keen to volunteer and put their practical skills to use, even while remaining in the academic environment.
Matilda got involved with the Legal Advice Centre in the second year of her degree. Its existence was a major reason for her choice to attend Nottingham Trent University. The ability to experience working in different fields of law provided a better overview of the legal profession, and enabled her to focus on the areas of most interest.
Since she was required to apply legislation to real cases, Matilda quickly realised the importance of keeping up to date with the latest regulatory changes. The importance of having access to reliable resources for case work demonstrated the value of strong legal research skills, which, ironically, seemed less critical for academic reasons alone.
Matilda has a few tips for law faculties and librarians to promote the use of Legal Advice Centres to students:
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