If Legal Advice Is Needed, Students Help

Why the work of the law clinic at Bucerius Law School is a win-win situation for both those seeking advice and current law students

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.”

COMMITMENT OUT OF PASSION

 

Legal advisors are important intermediaries, asserts Dr. Bianca Sukrow, Head of the Law Clinic of Bucerius Law School. "They are still in the learning process themselves and therefore can sometimes recognize quicker than lawyers when people seeking advice do not understand something.” These are good prerequisites for providing support to people in need. In addition to the legal advisors, 22 lawyers are currently involved in the Law Clinic of Bucerius Law School. They offer an initial consultation free of charge. Should this not be sufficient, the concept also provides for a legal representation of the court. Since those seeking advice at the Law Clinic are usually without means, they receive legal aid as well.

 


"Already during my studies I felt that I wanted to work on something that was meaningful and made a difference."
Bettina Bachinger, Attorney at Law for the Bucerius Law Clinic


 

"Already during my studies I felt that I wanted to work on something that was meaningful and made a difference" says attorney Bettina Bachinger. "Since 2012, I have been a lawyer and felt that now was a good time to join a law clinic." In 2013, she turned this into a reality: "I came to Bucerius Law School through a colleague from our firm who already advised on employment law.” There are weeks when Bachinger has five or six court appointments and there is little time left over for volunteer work. The dedicated lawyer succeeds nevertheless – regularly and with great passion.

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.

STUDENT LEGAL COUNSEL SINCE 2012


Law students who provide legal advice on a voluntary basis are not uncommon. Almost every law faculty these days has such an institution. The introduction of the 2008 Legal Services Act in Germany helped this model achieve a breakthrough in Germany."The Law Clinic at Bucerius Law School was founded in 2012", says Bianca Sukrow. She herself has been a member since 2016. "Our Law Clinic was founded at the initiative of a student, Judith Büschleb. She did an internship at the Integration Center Hamburg-North, a welfare and social counseling center for immigrants. The counselors always had challenges when it came to the legal field. Judith thought this is exactly where law students could provide assistance.” The Harold A. and Ingeborg L. Hartog Foundation made this vision financially possible.

What is so special about the student legal services at Bucerius Law School? "The high percentage of students who are involved in some form or another" says Sukrow." 116 students start with us every year. Annually we train up to 30 of them as legal advisors."

DIGITAL LEGAL ADVICE DURING CORONA


The students continued providing advice throughout the corona pandemic and during the lockdown. "We immediately switched over to a digital format and, as far as we know, we are the only Law Clinic that continued advising without taking a break," says Hannah Franz. She has been a member of the organizing team for legal advice since 2016. In 2019, she also organized Germany's first migration law moot court at the Law Clinic, in cooperation with the Refugee Law Clinic at the University of Hamburg and the Federal Association of Refugee Law Clinics. Migration law is not part of the legal curriculum, adds the prospective lawyer, making a simulated court hearing a good idea. Hannah Franz was a proven organizer. When Corona broke out in 2020 and the first lockdown came with it, it was clear to her that the Law Clinic consultations would have to be digitized immediately. After all, deadlines or acknowledgement of paternity, as in the case today, continue to be urgent issues regardless of corona. "We benefited from the fact that we had a good week to switch over between the lockdown at the university and the next consultation session," added Hannah Franz. In addition, the tool that the social counsellors used to upload relevant documents even before the pandemic, and the links used by all the offices involved, were helpful. Franz continues: "For the first Zoom consultation day, I prepared a plan for how everything could work from this point forward.” It had to be done quickly, because the 25 or so social counseling centers in Hamburg, with which the Law Clinic works together, began gradually closing their doors for on-site visits. This was challenging, because they are the first point of contact for those seeking advice, and they also make the appointments for the consultations.

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.

THE DIRECT LINE TO THE LAW CLINIC AT THE BUCERIUS LAW SCHOOL:

More about the Law Clinic at Bucerius Law School at law-clinic.de and on Instagram at @buceriuslawclinic.

Text

Anja Reinbothe-Occhipinti, freelance journalist

Hamburg