'I AM NOT A CAPED CRUSADER': CLINICAL LEGAL EDUCATION AND PROFESSIONAL IDENTITY FORMATION.

Author:Buhler, Sarah
Position:Survey
 
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  1. INTRODUCTION

    Clinical legal education has been identified as a method for teaching students to reflect critically on legal institutions and legal practice, an antidote for law students' disengagement from social justice ideals, and a transformative site for the development of professional identity. (1) However, very little empirical research addresses the experiences of students in clinical law programs or the impact of clinical legal education on students' ideas about lawyering and professional identity. (2) In an era where experiential legal education, including clinical legal education, is arguably ascendant within Canadian law faculties and beyond, it is important to learn more about the clinical legal education experiences of students. (3) In particular, it is important to learn how participation in clinical programs affects students' professional identities, their approaches to legal practice, and their ideas about the role of law and lawyers in struggles for social justice. In this study, I conducted 13 in-depth semi-structured interviews with former College of Law clinical law students. All of the students had participated in the College of Law's clinical law program between 2007 and 2012. The program is situated at a community-based clinic called CLASSIC (Community Legal Services for Saskatoon Inner City). (4) My goal was to learn about students' professional identity formation during the clinical law program, and in particular to examine whether students' clinical experiences engendered critical perspectives about law and their roles and identities within the legal profession.

    The interviews portray a complex and nuanced picture of the students' clinical law experiences, and of the influence of these experiences on their professional identities and beliefs about law and lawyering. The students identified their time in the clinical law program as profoundly impactful, but also as a time of struggle and dissonance: they described a process of negotiating dominant norms about legal practice and alternate, more critical ideas about the role of lawyers in poverty law contexts. In short, the interviews show that students' encounters with clients, members of the legal profession, and the legal system paradoxically both reified and disrupted their attachments to normative ideas about law, professional identity, and the role of lawyers. In addition, the interviews reveal that the students struggled to reconcile a deepening critique of law and legal institutions with a desire to maintain faith in the legal system and an attachment to their future roles within this system. These observations complicate claims about the transformative effects of clinical legal education and invite critical scrutiny by clinical legal educators of the multiple and sometimes competing lessons being taken up by law students during their time in clinical legal education programs.

    In this article, I turn first to a discussion about the clinical law program at the College of Law in order to provide the background and context for the study. I briefly discuss the research methodology and limitations. In the next section, I discuss some of the features of the process of professional identity formation that occurs for many law students during their time at law school. Drawing on critical scholarship about the production of professional identity, I argue that among other things, students receive messages in and beyond law school that lawyers inhabit elite identities and possess exclusive, technical knowledge that specially positions them to solve discrete, defined problems; that professional identity is associated with a claim that clear boundaries demarcate the borders between the realms of the "legal" and the "non-legal"; that the lawyer-client relationship is similarly characterized by the need for clear professional boundaries; and that the proper work of legal professionals is centred on the deployment of legal arguments and strategies within a coherent, neutral legal order, rather than upon challenging that order. These features of professional identity are significant because they tend to generate approaches to legal practice that may hamper lawyers' ability to work effectively towards social justice.

    I then turn to an analysis of the interviews. I identify four broad themes that arise from the interviews, all which are illustrative of the argument that the clinical legal education experiences of the students functioned to at times reify and at times disrupt the normative ideas about professional identity and legal practice described above. First, students identified their clinical law experiences as impacting their view of law and the power of law. Second, students' experiences caused them to confront ideas about the professional power of lawyers. Third, students' direct experiences and interactions with their clients challenged their understanding of "boundaries" between lawyers and clients and between legal and non-legal realms. Finally, students noted that the clinic served as a platform from which to view and critique the legal profession outside of the clinic context, while illustrating that alternate, more critical approaches to legal practice remain possible.

    As Rebecca Sandefur and Jeffrey Selbin have recently noted, we know relatively little, empirically, about the impacts of clinical legal education on law students. (5) Sandefur and Selbin refer to American longitudinal data that support the idea that student participation in clinics is correlated with a greater likelihood of employment in public interest careers, but note that the data does not show an increased commitment to pro bono practice on the part of lawyers who were involved in clinics during law school. (6) Besides Sandefur and Selbin's study, there is almost no other empirical research on the impacts of clinical legal education in any jurisdiction--despite the growing international clinical law "movement" (7)--and no Canadian qualitative research in this area prior to this research project. (8) As Sandefur and Selbin write, "Because the state of knowledge in the field is so rudimentary at present, we clearly have much to learn. At the same time, the dearth of information means that even modest projects can build knowledge, generate new theories and test hypotheses." (9) This modest project responds to Sandefur and Selbin's call for more research in the area of the "clinic effect" (10) and provides the first qualitative study focused on interviews with former students about clinical legal education and professional identity formation in a Canadian context.

  2. THE CLINICAL LAW PROGRAM AND "CLASSIC"

    Sameer M. Ashar has called for "thick description of the content of clinical work and the contexts in which clinics operate", (11) and it is important to properly contextualize the discussion about the interviews with former University of Saskatchewan clinical law students and their experiences at CLASSIC. Clinical law programs in Canada are far from homogenous: a wide variety of clinical models and approaches exist, from specialty international human rights clinics to community-based poverty law programs. (12) Certainly, each clinic has its own culture, routines, and practices. (13) Furthermore, clinical law programs are diverse in terms of the amount of time students spend in the program, the types of training and critical reflection the students are required to do, the types of legal practice undertaken, the location of the clinic, the demographics of the students and clients involved in the clinic, and the models of teaching and supervision employed.

    However, despite the diversity and unique circumstances of each clinical law program, there are also commonalities between programs. Many clinics, including CLASSIC, focus on clients who are poor and marginalized, and individually represent such clients in areas of law that fall under the rubric of what is often called "poverty law". (14) Many clinics, including CLASSIC, struggle to address the tension between a focus on individual client representation and a broader engagement with social movements and systemic advocacy. (15) And like many clinics, CLASSIC also struggles to reconcile the pressure to train students in "transferable" lawyering skills with the goal of teaching students the unique knowledge and skills required for poverty law and social justice-oriented practice. (16)

    The clinical law program at the College of Law was developed in 2007, alongside the formation of CLASSIC. (17) CLASSIC is a not-for-profit community legal clinic located in Saskatoon's diverse Riversdale neighbourhood. The program's mandate is to work to meet the legal needs of members of Saskatoon s low-income community, with a focus on the needs of Indigenous clients. (18) It also seeks to foster an "ethic of social justice" in law students. (19) CLASSIC focuses primarily on individual client work, representing clients in a wide variety of areas of law, including criminal law, prison law, social assistance, housing law, immigration and refugee law, and human rights law. (20)

    CLASSIC is also involved in community projects and collaborations with other social justice-oriented community-based organizations. CLASSIC staff and students are regularly invited to provide public legal education sessions in the community and have worked with organizations on various campaigns and projects. (21) In this way, CLASSIC has attempted to embrace a focus on "community lawyering". (22) Muneer Ahmad has written that community lawyering is a

    mode of lawyering that envisions communities and not merely individuals as vital in problem-solving for poor people, and that is committed to partnerships between lawyers, clients and communities as a means of transcending individualized claims and achieving structural change. (23) CLASSIC advocates a client-centred approach to its work with individual clients. (24) Students are encouraged to reflect...

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