Teaching excellence: letting students take the lead

In the third blog from nominees for Most Innovative Teacher of the Year at the THE Awards, Philip Drake recalls his experience of setting up a legal advice clinic

February 29, 2016
Folders of legal advice

When I first came to teaching from practice, I was driven by a desire to enable law students of the university to understand the importance of ethical practice and to have the opportunity to demonstrate ethical practice in action. None more so than in relation to the distinctly ethical question of access to justice.

I chose the idea of the legal advice clinic (LAC) and then handed over a number of important decisions to the students themselves. My aim was not only to highlight in the student’s education the importance of the question of access to justice but also to foster and encourage students who were reflective, holistic and autonomous thinkers.

From the start, the students were challenged to come up with their own ideas and to research the model of LAC that they wanted. They consulted with legal professionals and travelled the country viewing other LAC models. The students and I were taken aback by the help, assistance and support proffered by universities already offering clinical education provisions. After much research, the students themselves decided that they wanted to create an LAC with an “ethical backbone” where the focus was on the client, rather than their education. Such an approach was admirable and meant that students were developing professional skills such as reflection, empathy and understanding.

However, with such a focus came the realisation that if we truly wanted to help the vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the public, many of the people we wanted to reach would simply not feel comfortable walking on to a university campus. The students were therefore adamant that, rather than set up on campus and wait for the community to come to them for help, that they would go to the community. They accordingly proposed setting up a shop for legal help that, at the time, raised a number of eyebrows, given that nearly all university legal advice clinics, certainly in the UK, are based on campus. Certainly, obtaining an Higher Education Academy research grant of more than £50,000 to implement and evaluate an LAC, with the help of psychologists, was of assistance to this goal. However, central to the opening of the LAC in town centre shop premises in October 2013 was the sheer determination of the students.

The process meant that the students’ learning actually began not from the date that the LAC opened, but from the very first meeting in which setting up an LAC was discussed. Through their journey and these open discussions, these pioneering students were empowered to take responsibility for the task and decide where their priorities would lie. The tutors, rather than telling the students what to do, played a role of helping to facilitate their opinions and scaffold their ideas. Such an approach was perhaps best highlighted by three exceptional students who, to great acclaim, took the unusual step of presenting their own academic paper to the Association of Law Teachers conference in which they covered their reflective journey. Instead of the usual approach of academics telling other academics how students learned, our students were telling academics how students learn. Such an approach of students as partners perhaps represents the learning ethos of the LAC at its best.

With the students very much at the forefront, we developed a network of stakeholders and devised a number of innovative schemes including student secondments to Kirklees Law Centre, students operating a triage and “McKenzie friend” service at Huddersfield County Court, a county court work job swap, weekly drop-in sessions with local solicitors at the LAC, a phone-a-legal-friend scheme and a series of annual social justice lectures.

Through their hard work and devotion to assisting those who otherwise would not receive any help, these students have not only learned the skills of interviewing, researching, advising and letter writing but also reflective skills and consideration of the impact of the law on society and particularly the weak and vulnerable. They have learned to challenge generally accepted views, when it is right to do so, and in some cases, their own stereotypes.

The demand for legal help has been high. In the previous academic year (2014-15), 166 consultations with members of the public have been held. The service provided by the students has been fantastic: client feedback rates the service an average 4.71 out of 5. In fact, the students’ dedication and hard work was recognised in 2015 with the LawWorks and attorney general’s award for “Best Contribution by a Team of Students”.

In education, we sometimes take a cautionary approach to learning, not wishing to give too much responsibility to the students. My experience has been that when students are given responsibility and the power to contribute towards their own education, and given the tools and structure to do so, that you see them blossom professionally and as human beings. 

Philip Drake is senior lecturer of law at the University of HuddersfieldHe was nominated for the Most Innovative Teacher of the Year title at the Times Higher Education Awards 2015.

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