Chapter 3: Making the most of your Law Clinic Journey

Law students at Bond University.     © Bond University.

3.1 Starting your clinic journey  

A successful clinic experience starts with the correct attitude – an open mind and a willingness to learn. Dealing with clients in practice is different from solving problems in theory and can be challenging at first for some students, although there will always be a supervisor to lead the way and provide a support structure. Making the most of your clinic experience depends on a “can-do” mindset, and an ability to learn from your mistakes. By approaching the journey with enthusiasm and flexibility you will create an optimal learning experience for yourself, no matter the work involved in your chosen clinic. Even the humblest of jobs – photocopying or cleaning out wastepaper baskets – should be seen as an opportunity to learn and grow. Mostly, clinic will exceed students’ expectations and is often referred to as “the best thing I ever did” by students who immerse themselves in the experience.

3.2 The hero’s journey

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Unsplash

The law clinic experience has been likened to a “hero’s journey”.[1] This is because it provides law students with the opportunity to develop the ‘Great Eight Traits’ of heroism in becoming a civic-minded, ethical lawyer. These traits have been described as:[2]

    1. Caring: compassionate, empathetic, kind
    2. Charismatic: dedicated, eloquent, passionate
    3. Inspiring: admirable, amazing, great, inspirational
    4. Reliable: loyal, true
    5. Resilient: accomplished, determined, persevering
    6. Selfless: altruistic, honest, humble, moral
    7. Smart: intelligent, wise
    8. Strong: courageous, dominating, gallant, leader

Each of the Great Eight Traits is of relevance to becoming a good lawyer. A lawyer with civic virtue will be caring towards those they seek to help in order to best understand their interests and circumstances, and motivate them to trust the lawyer[3]. They must be charismatic when engaging in advocacy on behalf of those they serve, especially when seeking to persuade a judge or legislator to interpret or reform the law in a particular manner[4]. They must be inspiring if they are seeking to persuade others to join their cause in seeking to reform the law or strive for social justice. They must be reliable and loyal: to their client, to the court, to their colleagues and to the law itself[5]. They must be resilient, especially in the face of the extraordinary stressors associated with the study and practice of law [6].

They must be selfless, willing to give of their time freely to help those who are incapable of helping themselves[7] or to engage in actions that benefit others even if the cost to themselves personally outweighs any personal benefits. They must certainly be smart: it does after all take at least three years of university study to qualify as a lawyer. And a lawyer with civic virtue must be strong: there will be times when their opponents will be well resourced and politically powerful, and a lawyer must be especially courageous when the cause they are advocating is unpopular or inconsistent with the preferences of the political status quo. If heroism is moral courage in the face of adversity and despite the personal cost, this eighth and final virtue is particularly relevant for civically virtuous lawyers.

In the law clinics, students are inspired to develop these character traits in the context of their legal experience. However, it is up to you to approach your clinic work with enthusiasm and determination to learn and to strive towards achieving these admirable qualities. A giving and selfless attitude will be instrumental in developing these attributes.

      • Ethical Behaviour -The Keystone of Legal Practice
      • Interviewing, Communication and Writing Skills
      • Developing Research and Technology Skills
      • Organisational Skills Development: A Recipe for Success
      • Meeting Expectations: Clients’, Supervisors’ and your Own
      • The Value of Reflection

3.3 Prepare yourself for the journey

Before you start, equip yourself for your clinic journey. A good lawyer has strong organisational skills, and ensuring that you are well prepared will assist you in making a good start. As a priority, familiarise yourself with the course requirements if you haven’t done so yet, including:

    1. Your supervisor or clinic coordinator’s office hours and contact details;
    2. Your allocated clinic hours and attendance requirements (including dress code, parking arrangements, etc);
    3. Clinic induction place and time;
    4. Any information on the clinic website that may be important, including announcements posted by your clinic coordinator.
    5. Additionally, where you are undertaking the clinic for academic credit/as an elective subject, make sure you have reviewed:
      • Any prescribed materials and resources;
      • Assessment content and criteria for marking;
      • Any marking rubrics being used by the clinic coordinator.

3.4  Immerse yourself in the experience

Start making the most of your clinic experience from Day 1. Clinics are practice-based and some of the activities may be new to you. Don’t hesitate to ask questions if you are unsure of anything; it is completely normal – your supervisor is there to mentor and guide you on your journey. Also, don’t expect others to do the work for you or to meet your expectations; rather, make sure that you meet your own expectations by setting realistic goals for yourself and striving to achieve them. For example, you may be intimidated by the idea of interviewing a real-life client to obtain their information at the start. This is an opportunity to banish your apprehension and challenge yourself. Overcoming fears and obstacles is part of the clinic journey – if you embrace any fears or uncertainty with the support of your supervisor, you will leave the clinic with more confidence, more practical experience and a stronger sense of community values than when you started.

It is important to see each instruction as an opportunity to improve your skillset. Clinic work may include a variety of activities under the supervision of an experienced legal practitioner, for example:

  • Researching the law relating to a client matter
  • Taking instructions from a client
  • Finding a precedent for your supervisor
  • Writing a client letter or file note
  • Answering the phone or meeting and greeting clients
  • Online file management
  • Administrative work such as filing or photocopying
  • Dealing with a distressed client.

All of these activities, different as they may appear to you, provide you with a chance to prepare yourself for legal practice. Take advantage of each learning opportunity that presents itself.

3.5 Request and implement feedback

To have a real and valuable learning experience in the clinic, expect that there may be times that you fail in what you set out to do, or don’t live up to your own or your supervisor’s expectations. It’s all part of the journey and it is important to learn from your mistakes. Make a point of seeking feedback from your supervisor during the semester to improve your skills and raise the quality of your work. This is a valuable opportunity to prepare you for the real world of legal practice and to acquire skills you may not even have realised are needed to be a good lawyer.

In addition to developing technical work skills, there are other qualities you could foster and improve during your time in clinic. Measure yourself against the “eight traits” of the hero – ask yourself, are there ways in which you could become not only a better person but a better lawyer through your clinic experience?

There are many ways in which you could try to incorporate these qualities into your activities. For example, you could foster compassion and empathy by taking note of the plight of many of the clinic clients in community legal centres, many of whom are disadvantaged or disenfranchised, and think about ways in which they may benefit from practical guidance or assistance. On a personal level, you may hone your communication skills and become more eloquent and confident in dealing with clients, your peers and your supervisor. You could strive to be inspiring to others through your dedication and hard work in the clinic and demonstrate your loyalty and trustworthiness by always being punctual and reliable. You could show determination and courage in your work ethic and dealing with problems and strive to be humble and moral in all you do. These are the qualities of a leader, and now is your chance to develop them.

3.6 Build connections

“Only connect” – E. M. Foster [8] 

Being part of a clinic also presents a great opportunity to increase your connections, both professionally and personally. Because of the collaborative/teamwork nature of many clinics, students are often able to build lasting friendships amongst themselves and connect with their peers on a level where everyone has the same objectives. Whether your task is to complete a collaborative project or complete the clinic successfully as an individual, a sense of camaraderie and support is typical of the clinic environment. Students help and support each other to find solutions for legal issues, find resources and share experiences in the clinic community. This is also part of legal practice, where lawyers typically help their colleagues with advice, precedents and resources, and support each other when the going gets tough.

On a professional level, clinics also give you a chance to network and make valuable professional connections which could be helpful once you are a law graduate or entry level lawyer, or even when considering a different career. This obviously depends on the type of clinic you are undertaking, but most clinics require legal practitioner or academic supervision, which is an ideal opportunity to cultivate mentorships and ongoing connections. Some clinics may partner with industry which could open the door to other opportunities once you complete your studies. It is up to you what you make of this golden opportunity and to impress your superiors with your outstanding work ethic and enthusiasm.

3.7 Wellbeing and resilience 

It has been recognised that it may be stressful for clinic students to meet a distressed client or encounter an unfamiliar environment.[9]In the clinic environment you may be exposed to clients who are agitated, emotionally charged, or adversely affected by their circumstances, depending on the type of clinic placement you are undertaking. It is important that you are able to deal with these challenges and that you are aware of coping mechanisms and strategies that can help you navigate difficult situations.

Your supervisors will be experienced and well-versed in managing difficult clients and stressful situations, and you should always defer to them in the first instance when faced with a challenging issue and seek their advice and support. As a law student you would never be expected to deal with such matters on your own in the clinic environment.

One of the approaches that may be helpful to you as a clinic student is to embrace the principles of Self-Determination Theory, as discussed below.

Self-determination theory

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is regarded as an important theory of human motivation[10] and can be a helpful tool in building resilience and wellbeing in law clinic students. SDT is based upon the idea[11] that there is a link between high levels of wellbeing and being intrinsically motivated, where the reason for acting is for the enjoyment and sense of fulfilment it provides, therefore an end in itself.

For example, this can be illustrated by a student undertaking a clinic placement out of curiosity and interest, or a sense of community values, rather than ticking a box for their CV. This can be contrasted with external motivation, where a student takes on a clinic role because they feel obliged to do so. It can therefore be argued that your clinic experience should be motivated by intrinsic rather than external considerations. Ask yourself: Why am I undertaking the clinic placement? What does it mean to me in my personal development? How can I optimise enjoyment of my experience? How does it help others? These types of questions will help you to identify your personal motivators and appreciate the experience for its own value (and your community values) rather than what it will do for your future career.

Another concept that has surfaced within STD is Basic Psychological Needs Theory. It proposes that psychological well-being and optimal functioning is based on a person experiencing autonomy, competence, and relatedness.[12] These concepts are also relevant in the law clinic environment and can be explained as follows:

  • Autonomy: Experiencing the ability and opportunity to exercise choice;
  • Competence: Being able to experience increasing mastery; and
  • Relatedness: Experiencing trusting and trusted relationships with others.[13]

In general, wellbeing is linked to experiencing all three concepts, which, if implemented, can have a positive impact in the context of clinic experience.

Autonomous motivation has been linked to higher levels of positive effect, better productivity and less burn out at work, greater understanding and higher subjective wellbeing,[14] which emphasises the importance of personal choice. To experience autonomy, it is suggested that people need to be true to their values, feel empowered, and act in a way that supports their true beliefs, values and interests.[15] This holds true for the clinic environment too, and supports the need for students to exercise choice in their own clinic experience. For example, if you are commercially minded and averse to trauma, a criminal law clinic may affect your wellbeing adversely, whereas you may have a more positive experience dealing with small business matters in a commercial law clinic.

To increase competence in students, law clinics should support the development of student competence by providing well-structured affirming learning environments.[16] It is important that your clinic supports this ethos and that you are able to have conversations with your supervisor to ensure you are enjoying an optimal learning experience in a well-organised setting. It may also be up to you to apply organisational skills and to ask for personal feedback when you require it.

Relatedness requires “meaningful and reciprocal connection with significant other people”,[17]which implies a two-way street. Trust needs to be built by both parties. You have the opportunity of building strong relationships with your supervisors and peers in the clinic, which will enhance and enrich your clinic experience and your own wellbeing. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your fellow students as the clinic environment encourages mutual support and collaboration.

The clinic provides a suitable environment to foster these qualities, but it is ultimately up to you to ensure you make choices which support your values and beliefs, and to incorporate the concepts of autonomy, competence and relatedness into your clinic experience. In this way, you can contribute to your own wellbeing and resilience.

Vicarious trauma

There are however circumstances which may trigger vicarious trauma in a clinic environment, depending on the type of clinic. Vicarious trauma can result from working with individuals who have experienced traumatic events, such as clients in domestic violence situations or clients suffering financial abuse. It is a relevant issue for students working in law clinics where they may be exposed to clients who have experienced trauma or witnessed traumatic events. If your clinic deals with these types of matters, it is important to recognise that you may be affected by other people’s stress and trauma.

Here are some strategies you can use to deal with vicarious trauma:

  • Seek support: Your mentor or supervisor can provide support, feedback, and guidance on how to manage vicarious trauma. Talking to a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional can also help to process and manage vicarious trauma; however, it is pivotal to respect client confidentiality in these circumstances. It is acceptable to discuss details of legal matters with your supervisor but not with friends or family members. Your university counselling services may also be able to provide you with support in dealing with vicarious trauma.
  • Engage in self-reflection: Take time to reflect on your experiences and emotions related to your work in the clinic. This can help you to identify areas of personal strength and growth, and to identify any potential triggers for vicarious trauma.
  • Limit exposure and debrief: Your clinic supervisors will aim to limit students’ exposure to graphic or triggering material, but it is up to you to alert them when you feel stressed or challenged by situations or clients in the clinic. You should also be able to take breaks and debrief with our supervisor after dealing with traumatic cases, ensuring that you communicate any concerns to your supervisor honestly and openly.
  • Learn about vicarious trauma: Becoming knowledgeable about the effects of vicarious trauma can help to validate and understand one’s own experiences.[18]
  • Practice self-care: Recognise when you may have been affected by vicarious trauma and take steps to look after your wellbeing. To look after your physical and emotional health engage in activities such as exercise, meditation, and spending time with family and friends.

It’s important to remember that everyone’s experiences with vicarious trauma are unique and what works for one student may not work for another. Seeking help and support early is crucial in preventing the effects of vicarious trauma from becoming overwhelming.

Your clinic supervisors recognise that students come from different circumstances and have had different life experiences, and that some students may need more support than others. All students may need support or guidance at some stage during their law degree, irrespective of their background or age. It’s natural to share your difficulties, challenges and uncertainties with your supervisor, and to ask for support when you need it, especially when dealing with traumatic matters or difficult clients, or even when issues relating to a personal matter may be impacting on your work. You are not alone in your clinic journey – it’s okay to rely on the mentorship and support of your clinic supervisors and colleagues.

  1. Francina Cantatore and Nickolas J James ‘Heroism Science offers a new framework for cultivating civic virtue within clinical law programs’ (2017) 2(1) Australian Journal of Clinical Education 1 <>.
  2. Scott T Allison and George R Goethals, Heroic leadership: An influence taxonomy of 100 exceptional individuals (Routledge 2013).
  3. Ian Gallacher, 'Thinking like Nonlawyers: Why Empathy is a Core Lawyering Skill and Why Legal Educators Should Change to Reflect Its Importance' (2011) 8 Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD 109.
  4. Deborah L Rhode, Lawyers as leaders (Oxford University Press 2013).
  5. Ibid 17.
  6. Ibid 30.
  7. Richard Abel and P S C Lewis (eds) Lawyers in society: An overview (University of California Press 1995).
  8. E M Foster, Howards End Accessed 14.12.22, Chapter 22< http: //>
  9. Nigel Duncan, Caroline Strevens and Rachael M Field, ‘Resilience and student wellbeing in Higher Education: A Theoretical Basis for Establishing Law School Responsibilities for Helping our Students to Thrive’ (2020) 1(1) European Journal of Legal Education 83 <>; Gregory Baker, 'Do You Hear the Knocking at the Door - A Therapeutic Approach to Enriching Clinical Legal Education comes Calling' (2006) 28(1) Whittier Law Review 379; Adrian Evans, et al, Australian Clinical Legal Education: Designing and operating a best practice clinical program in an Australian law school (ANU Press 2017) <>; Nigel Duncan, ‘Resilience, positive motivation and professional identity The experience of law clinic students working with real clients’ in Caroline Strevens and Rachael Field (eds), Educating for Well-Being in Law: Positive Professional Identities and Practice (Routledge 2019) 143.
  10. Nigel Duncan, Caroline Strevens and Rachael M Field, ‘Resilience and student wellbeing in Higher Education: A Theoretical Basis for Establishing Law School Responsibilities for Helping our Students to Thrive’ (2020) 1(1) European Journal of Legal Education 83 <>; see also Richard M Ryan and Edward L Deci, ‘Brick by Brick: The Origins, Development, and Future of Self-Determination Theory’ in Andrew J Elliot (ed) Advances in Motivation Science (Elsevier 2019) Vol 6, 111.
  11. Edward L Deci and Richard M Ryan, Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior (Plenum 1985).
  12. Nigel Duncan, Caroline Strevens and Rachael M Field, ‘Resilience and student wellbeing in Higher Education: A Theoretical Basis for Establishing Law School Responsibilities for Helping our Students to Thrive’ (2020) 1(1) European Journal of Legal Education 83.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Edward L Deci and Richard M Ryan, ‘Facilitating Optimal Motivation and Psychological Well-Being Across Life's Domains’ (2008) 49(1) Canadian Psychology 14.
  15. Christopher P Niemiec, Richard M Ryan and Edward L Deci, ‘Self-Determination Theory and the Relation of Autonomy to Self-Regulatory Processes and Personality Development’ in Rick Hoyle (ed), Handbook of Personality and Self-Regulation (Wiley Blackwell, 2010) 169, 176.
  16. Nigel Duncan, Caroline Strevens and Rachael M Field, ‘Resilience and student wellbeing in Higher Education: A Theoretical Basis for Establishing Law School Responsibilities for Helping our Students to Thrive’ (2020) 1(1) European Journal of Legal Education 83.
  17. Ibid.
  18. See, for example, Silver, M. A., Portnoy, S., & Peters, J. K. (2015). Stress, burnout, vicarious trauma, and other emotional realities in the lawyer/client relationship. Touro Law Review, 19(4), <>.


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The Law Clinic Experience: A Guidebook for Students Copyright © 2023 by Francina Cantatore is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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