No one should ever have to give up their rights because he or she is destitute. This is a principle of student legal advice at universities and colleges. Working in a law clinic is the best possible practice for prospective lawyers: they can learn valuable lessons for their jobs as well as for life. The Law Clinic at Bucerius Law School has been in existence for eight years and continues to provide advice even now, during the current lockdown due to the corona pandemic.
A computer screen flickers briefly. A digital window opens and both video and audio functions are activated. These days a typical scenario for a video call via the conference platform Zoom. Each participant has dialed in from a different location. Bettina Bachinger, a family law attorney, is sitting in her law firm “Elblaw”, in Hamburg, while law students Stella Westenhoff and Anne Meier are calling from their home offices. They are all volunteers at the Law Clinic of Bucerius Law School: a lawyer together with two students, referred to as legal advisers, provide free advice to people who otherwise could not afford it. Prior to the corona pandemic, these discussions took place on the Bucerius Law School campus.
INSIGHTS INTO LEGAL PRACTICE
"I would like to request that you ask the questions" says attorney Bachinger, addressing the two students who are supporting her today. She continues, "if there is a problem, I will intervene." The upcoming case is briefly discussed, as is standard procedure. A few minutes later, law student Anne Meier welcomes someone seeking advice, who dialed into a virtual waiting area via mobile phone and is then transferred into the Zoom room, digitally doing what she would have usually done in person before the corona pandemic. Bettina Bachinger introduces herself and hands over the conversation to her student co-advisers. Today’s case deals with alimony and parental rights. The woman seeking advice, pregnant and with a migration background, has no residence permit but may remain in Hamburg until one month after giving birth to her child. The father does not acknowledge paternity.
"Our task is to mediate between those seeking advice, lawyers and interpreters. [...] and if lawyers must explain a complex issue, we summarize it in a comprehensible way.”
Stella Westenhoff, Legal Advisor
Family law is one of five legal fields in which the Law Clinic provides advice. Residence, employment, social and tenancy laws are also covered. The Law Clinic consultations enable students to test their acquired legal knowledge on real cases and also improve their communication skills. Bucerius Law School student Stella Westenhoff agrees: "Our task is to mediate between those seeking advice, lawyers and interpreters." Over 50 percent of the consultations have to be translated. For many it is a tense situation, says Westenhoff: "We try to make them feel comfortable. Even if it means something basic such as bringing them a glass of water. If lawyers have to explain a complex issue, in the end, we try to summarize it in a comprehensible way.”
ACQUISITION OF ADDITIONAL SKILLS
Without passion, none of this would be possible. After all, a total of 250 to 300 individual consultations are scheduled annually at the Law Clinic. Law student Stella Westenhoff handles one to three consulting appointments per month during the lecture free period. "There are three individual appointments per consultation block," she explains, "on average, a block lasts three hours. One to two hours of preparation is required in advance.” What drives her? "I did a voluntary service in Latin America before my studies, where legal advice was also offered. I liked the concept and my interest was piqued.” After starting her studies at Bucerius Law School in 2018, she applied to the Law Clinic in 2019.
Approximately 70 legal advisers, who are in various stages of their legal studies, are employed at the Law Clinic, says Bianca Sukrow: "In addition, 15 to 20 people work in the organization team and others in the interpreter pool. Our students are all volunteers". More than 100 students in total, says the director, and additional legal advisers are being trained each year: "There are two essential components of the training. One is a basic legal course, which includes family, social and residence law. Social and migration law are not components of state examinations and are not taught at the Law School, so we offer it on our own. The course is run in cooperation with the student secretariat and is the only element of the Law Clinic work that awards credits to the students." Law clinic attorneys, such as Bettina Bachinger, are also involved in the training. The second part consists of communication training, Sukrow continues: "With conversation techniques and case simulations.” The course ends with an oral examination which recreate consulting situations.
PERSONAL CONSULTATION STILL REQUIRED
The Law Clinic team found new procedures and has put its plan into action. Lawyers and social consultants were informed via e-mail about the digital turnaround. "Within an hour we received replies from ten lawyers who all agreed. These days, they are all using Zoom for meetings," says Hannah Franz, who is pleased with the positive response. "In the beginning we only did emergency consultations. When the social counseling centers reopened, we returned to normal operations. These days, we offer almost as many Zoom consultations as we previously did for face-to-face consultations."
That being said, the social counseling centers hope that things return to normal as soon as possible. In addition to the fear of consulting with a lawyer, some people also fear digitalization. Family lawyer Bettina Bachinger admits that she still considers personal counseling to be absolutely necessary: "Especially during initial interviews, it is better to sit opposite each other. It creates a basis of trust and presents you in a completely different manner than through a video screen.” Another difficulty is that the language mediators, who are often volunteers, lack the experience of virtual consultations. The Law Clinic team is aware of these challenges and hopes to soon return to face-to-face counseling, confirms Hannah Franz.
PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE THROUGH THE WORK AT THE LAW CLINIC
Until that point consultations will continue to be conducted virtually. "Fortunately, the social counsellors use our portal to enter facts and information with completed documents," says fellow student Stella Westenhoff. "This way, we can quickly access information during Zoom consultations.” What is currently missing is the personal touch, a glass of water or some cookies that we can usually offer during normal meetings. Nevertheless, reading between the lines can also be achieved virtually, as today's Zoom consultations show. The woman seeking advice feels comfortable and openly discusses her case with the legal advisers, supported by a lawyer. Stella Westenhoff is content and feels enriched by this experience: "You learn to listen and be more patient, paying greater attention to facial expressions and gestures during your work at the Law Clinic. It really underscores the fact that in the legal field, it is important to give clients clear answers." She also can gain a professional insight into areas that are not usually covered by her traditional academic studies: "For example, social law and how to calculate the Hartz IV (social benefits plan in Germany) rate.”
"Students who have advised in a law clinic have special skills in dealing with people."
Bianca Sukrow, Head of the Bucerius Law Clinic
The work of the Law Clinic is truly very relevant to practice, says Bianca Sukrow: "Several law firms have given us feedback that students who have advised in a Law Clinic have special skills in dealing with people. Someone who has already taken on responsibility for clients during his or her studies has gained professional experience, as well as doing good things for themselves and others.” All it takes is committed people who, even in times of the coronavirus, do not lose courage, but support others in advice and action - whether in person or digitally.