This guide is for you, the intrepid law student, looking for a meaningful and rich experience to set you on your path to your legal career. Although the benefits of a clinical experience in law have been well widely acknowledged and documented in academia, the idea of clinics may be a relatively unknown terrain for a law student who has, until now, been focussed on absorbing the doctrine and theory of law in the classroom, with elements of skills development integrated into law courses to a limited degree. Some questions you may ask when faced with the opportunity to participate in a clinic are:
- Why should I apply for a clinic?
- What are the benefits to me?
- How can I contribute best to the community?
- Which clinic opportunity will be most useful for me/my career?
- Should I take a clinic elective or pursue an extra-curricular opportunity?
- How important is access to justice/pro bono work in my decision?
You may be presented with a wealth of clinic choices – and knowledge is power in choosing the right clinic experience for you. Factors that may affect your decision include your current passions or interests. Are you interested in compelling human rights issues; sustainable development and climate change; access to justice; entrepreneurial or start-up enterprises; immigration law or family law, to name but a few?
A clinic is an opportunity for you to take your passion one step further and become involved in a hands-on capacity. You may be curious about a certain area of the law which you don’t know much about but would like to experience. Depending on the clinics offered by your institution, participation in a clinic may open your eyes to a niche area of the law.
Other factors that may impact your decision on choosing a clinic include your own talent, skills and aptitude, as well as your knowledge base, i.e., where you are in your law degree. Clinics will typically require you to have completed certain subjects or courses; however, some clinics may be suitable for students earlier in their degree. It’s up to you to investigate the opportunities and familiarise yourself with the clinic requirements by looking at the clinic websites.
1.2 The benefits of clinic experience
An enormous amount has been written about the benefits of clinical legal education (CLE), but to briefly reiterate the advantages of immersing yourself in a clinic experience, a few of the potential benefits of clinical involvement are listed below:
- Increased communication and listening skills
- Improved writing and drafting skills
- Ability to network with legal professionals and partner organisations
- Development of practical research skills
- Sharpening of problem-solving skills
- Legal tech and web-based learning opportunities
- Contributing to the common good/community service
- Pro bono opportunities in diverse areas of the law
- Opportunity to gain ‘real-life’ client experience
- Public interest project-based opportunities
- Engaging with peers and supervisors to work collaboratively
- Developing a professional and ethical mindset
Of course, these are only some of the demonstrated benefits associated with CLE. There are many more advantages to be gained, depending on what you hope to achieve from your experience, including the satisfaction you will gain from community or volunteer work by helping disadvantaged members of the community.
Don’t overthink it! Start planning to participate in at least one or more clinic experiences during your law degree. You will reap the benefits in terms of job preparedness, increased self-confidence, a deepened sense of community engagement, and potential connections with future employers.
1.3 Where do I start?
1.3.1 Choosing the right clinic
Depending on what your institution offers, there may be an array of clinics for you to choose from. How do you ensure that you choose the right clinic? Should you choose an elective clinical subject or an extra-curricular clinic experience? In short, there is no one right or wrong answer. CLE offers you an opportunity to ‘test-drive’ different areas of the law and whether you choose to do so for academic credit or as an extra-mural activity, there are significant benefits associated with both options.
There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ clinic – any clinic experience you have will help you gain insight into a particular area of the law, whether it be a criminal law clinic, human rights clinic, family law clinic, start-up law clinic, etc. Each type of clinic has a different focus and will offer you an opportunity to experience that area of the law in a practice, under the supervision of experienced academics and law professionals. It may assist you in deciding whether this is an area of the law you enjoy and want to pursue in the future, or whether it may not be for you – which is just as important. Either way, CLE affords law students those opportunities and insights.
1.3.2 CLE and pro bono – what is the difference?
You may have heard different terminology being used in respect of clinics, which can be confusing. Clinics may take on different formats and consist of a placement with a law firm or community legal centre, project-based activities with partner organisations with a public interest focus, or other access to justice focussed opportunities. Some clinics have a pro bono focus, which means they involve ‘legal services provided in the public interest by lawyers for free or for a substantially reduced fee’.
As for what constitutes ‘legal services provided in the public interest’ that may be:
“all interests under-represented by the private market, including the poor, ethnic minorities, unpopular causes ‘across the political spectrum’ and diffuse interests (such as environment and peace)”.
The National Pro Bono Resource Centre defines pro bono as:
- giving legal assistance for free or at a substantially reduced fee to:
(a) individuals who can demonstrate a need for legal assistance but cannot obtain Legal Aid or otherwise access the legal system without incurring significant financial hardship; or
(b) individuals or organisations whose matter raises an issue of public interest which would not otherwise be pursued; or
(c) charities or other non-profit organisations which work on behalf of low income or disadvantaged members of the community or for the public good;
- conducting law reform and policy work on issues affecting low income or disadvantaged members of the community, or on issues of public interest;
- participating in the provision of free community legal education on issues affecting low income or disadvantaged members of the community or on issues of public interest; or
- providing a lawyer on secondment at a community organisation (including a community legal organisation) or at a referral service provider such as a Public Interest Law Clearing House.
Related to that, the National Pro Bono Resource Centre adopts the following definition of ‘student pro bono’ as:
‘[S]tudent pro bono’ is where students, without fee, reward or academic credit provide or assist in the provision of services that will provide or enhance access to justice for low income and disadvantaged people or for non-profit organisations that work on behalf of members of the community who are disadvantaged or marginalised, or that work for the public good.
The definition of pro bono often excludes university courses for credit, and pro bono and CLE programs are often seen to ‘occupy different roles in the context of a law school education.’
Although there is some overlap between CLE and pro bono programs, they have generally been regarded as ‘separate and distinct entities’. The main distinguishing factors between the two models appear to be as follows:
- Academic credit is usually awarded for CLE programs, as opposed to purely voluntary non-reward arrangements for pro bono students.
- The term ‘pro bono’ refers to voluntary work done out of a sense of professional responsibility, where the primary motivation for the work is a concern for justice or for reasons of kinship or friendship, as opposed to securing gain.
- CLE programs typically have a teaching focus whereas pro bono programs typically have a community service focus.
- Usually pro bono programs are at no financial cost to students whereas academic fees are usually payable for CLE programs.
- CLE programs are usually required to have formal assessment procedures to produce specific learning and teaching outcomes whereas pro bono programs generally implement informal feedback and reflective practices.
In Australia pro bono work is not compulsory per se; neither for law students (unless mandated by their institution), nor for lawyers. However, the legal profession in Australia has a strong pro bono ethos, evidenced by the number of law firms and legal professionals who subscribe to the National Pro Bono Target set by the Australian Pro Bono Centre. Consequently, many law firms value a pro bono mindset in their lawyers.
However, as mentioned above, both CLE and pro bono activities will provide you with valuable practice-based experience to prepare you for a future career, whether in a law practice, alternative legal work or a related profession.
- Australian Law Reform Commission, Managing Justice: A Review of the Federal Civil Justice System, Report No 89 (2000) 307. ↵
- Les McCrimmon, ‘Mandating a Culture of Service: Pro Bono in the Law School Curriculum’ (2003-2004) 14(1) Legal Education Review 53 < https://ler.scholasticahq.com/article/6164-mandating-a-culture-of-service-pro-bono-in-the-law-school-curriculum> ↵
- Richard Abel, ‘Choosing, Nurturing, Training and Placing Public Interest Law Students’ (2002) 70(5) Fordham Law Review 1563. ↵
- National Pro Bono Resource Centre, What is Pro Bono?<https://www.probonocentre.org.au/apbn/feb-2016/on-the-site-what-is-pro-bono/>. ↵
- National Pro Bono Resource Centre, Information Paper: Pro Bono and Clinical Legal Education Programs in Australian Law Schools (August 2004)< https://probonocentre.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/ProbonoandCLEs.pdf >: ‘clinical legal education programs are available at 23 of the 28 law schools (82%)', 8. ↵
- John Corker, ‘How Does Pro Bono Students Australia (PBSA) Fit with Clinical Legal Education in Australia?’ (Conference Paper, International Journal of Clinical Legal Education Conference and Australian Clinical Legal Education Conference, 13–15 July 2005) 6. ↵
- McCrimmon (n 2)54–57. ↵
- Francina Cantatore, ‘Boosting law graduate employability: Using a pro bono teaching clinic to facilitate experiential learning in commercial law subjects’ (2015) 25(1) Legal Education Review 147. ↵
- Adrian Evans et al, ‘Best Practices Australian Clinical Legal Education’ (Report, Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching, 2012) 23. ↵
- John Corker, ‘How Does Pro Bono Students Australia (PBSA) Fit with Clinical Legal Education in Australia?’ (Conference paper, International Journal of Clinical Legal Education Conference and Australian Clinical Legal Education Conference, 13–15 July 2005) 5. ↵
- Ibid 6. ↵
- Francina Cantatore, ‘Boosting law graduate employability: Using a pro bono teaching clinic to facilitate experiential learning in commercial law subjects’ (2015) 25(1) Legal Education Review 148. ↵
- National Pro Bono Resource Centre.<https://www.probonocentre.org.au/>. ↵