Daniel Doody writes about his experiences of volunteering with Citizens Advice.
W360 ‘Justice in action’ offers some excellent opportunities to work in communities and give back some of what you have learnt as well as developing those skills you may have newly found, putting them into practice. I am fortunate to be able to do two pro-bono activities on this module, volunteering at Citizens Advice (CA) and working in the Open Justice law clinic with fellow students. Both of which I thoroughly recommend.
But choosing what you feel comfortable with can be hard, I chose both these options for personal reasons. CA gave me the chance to experience advice on welfare law and this is the area I would like to practice in , so joining a bureau was most definitely the first step in gaining an understanding into the issues that I may face. Doing the law clinic was being able to work directly in a community that I grew up in, so the chance to give something back to a place I still call home was to me a no brainer.
What I have come to realise with both the options I chose, is just how similar they are and how they together, complement one another for a budding lawyer.
If we look at them both from a client’s point of view, a client has an issue and just want to know what they can do about it or even to understand it. This could be something as simple as a new car breaking down constantly and the dealership will not respond or do anything.
The procedures I have seen for both CA and the law clinic are very closely related; client interview, understanding of the issue, research, advice. All recorded electronically on cloud-based software. Although the format and timescales of everything after the initial interview may differ the actual process is the same.
For example, in the CA you will look at and discuss with the session supervisor what to research after the interview, in the law clinic as a team you will set out a research plan and discuss with the tutor and supervising solicitor. On the case write up for the CA you will be noting down everything the client has already done, you will reference areas you have looked at for the client. Within the law school you will write out a research plan and possibly identify case law, legislation or procedures, that may be of use to read and understand. In the case notes at the CA you will detail what you discussed and what options you presented to the client. For this in the law clinic, it is represented by a letter of advice, detailing where the client currently stands legally and what their next steps could be.
Advisors at the CA are not legally trained and whilst the information database used to provide the advice is based on current law and procedures the offering of advice has to be one that covers all options available to the client, even the do-nothing outcome. The law clinic can go a little deeper in its advice and may look at caselaw for example in explaining to the client what options they have, and how to legally proceed to the next stage.
For a law student what would be the best project for you to do? The CA offers you in great insight into what issues are out there in the real world, a drop in session can consist of anything from someone looking at a consumer issue, an employment issue or even an immigration problem, but there are countless issues that you can and will encounter. Training at the CA is based around some of the core issues (debt, consumer, welfare, employment), along with excellent client interviewing training, case recording, plus the options to look at specialised areas of training in the future. It gives you one on one experience in interviewing clients and knowing what questions to ask and when, and how to guide an interview.
When writing up the case notes I have found the skills learnt in legal writing really start to show. Case notes need to be concise and written in a way another advice can see the whole process you went through. The CA offers you the practical skills needed when in a client facing role.
Taking these skills across to a law clinic gives you a very good footing when interviewing the client, you will find yourself knowing how to use the time effectively when in the interview stage. I noticed my note taking style had improved drastically when dealing with clients at the CA and was able to determine through the interview what information is needed to work on a case. In the law clinic, as you really only interview the client once face to face, its paramount this time is used effectively and the notes you take convey the issue as is, what the client may have done already, additional information from letters they may have brought with them. But as you may not be working the case after the interview you need to have these presented for others to understand.
Whilst the case recording is somewhat different you will understand quickly, in the law school, why recording of what’s been done and what is to be done, as your team will need to be involved through the process and may need to know why you are researching a particular area for example. Communication is key at every stage both in the CA and at the law clinic, this is a skill that’s not taught but is rapidly learnt.
Volunteering CA has been of great benefit in undertaking a case in the law clinic, the CA has given me essentials skills that I have been able to carry into the law clinic with utter confidence. I would strongly recommend doing both if you get the chance and use both as a great way to develop your interpersonal skills for client interviewing, social awareness for issues you may deal with clients in your future careers, research skills in knowing where and what to look for, legal writing skills for when case recording and when writing to clients, in all honesty the list can go on! Both offer you a great toolkit of skills you will need for any future career.