Pandemic-Proofing Clinical Pedagogy

CALICon 2020 was full of change to meet the new virtual learning reality. The third day included presentations by clinical professors highlighting the difficulties with clinical education for law students stuck at home. As states combat another spike in infections, it is likely that some aspects of remote lawyering will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Dionne Gonder-Stanley, Clinical Professor from North Carolina Central University School of Law, addressed virtual presentation lawyering skills, like maintaining proper court attire, camera, and body positioning, observing courtroom decorum, and the tech required for virtual lawyering. Professor Gonder-Stanley also noted that the equipment required to run a virtual clinic was a computer with a webcam, microphone, a stable internet connection, and Zoom. Clients would only require a phone to dial into the Zoom meeting.

One way to improve virtual professionalism is by improving hardware beyond internal webcams and minimum laptop requirements. Nothing says unprofessional as a slow internet connection, grainy picture quality, and audio that sounds like it’s coming from an underwater cave. A faster CPU, more RAM, an HD webcam, and a headset with a directional microphone can all drastically improve the presentation quality. Zoom Virtual Backgrounds also require slightly higher computing requirements and add to the professionalism of remote lawyering by eliminating visual distractions in the background. System requirements differ if you generate a virtual background with or without a green screen available. For more information about the system requirements, check out Zoom Backgrounds.

(External webcams allow for higher quality video, with integrated microphone, and allows for varying viewing angles for a more professional presentation.)

Given the advances in wireless technology, wireless headphones allow free range of movement from longer distances, offer increased battery life, and are less conspicuous, all of which are essential for animated litigators. If combined with an external webcam and podium, presentations can look more like oral arguments in a courtroom, all without leaving the home. Optimized tech would also allow law students to give oral arguments without the appearance of reading from a prepared statement while staring off into their laptop, adding to their professional decorum. While one concern for law schools will be the income inequality of their law students, law schools should make some effort to provide optimized equipment to students in the clinical and pro bono programs, through either a loan or subsidized tech program.

Another great takeaway from the clinical efforts at UNT Dallas College of Law was the virtual justice program, allowing for presentations to a large group of patrons with general legal advice.  Zoom allowed students to set up client meetings and mimic the pre-pandemic clinical setting of allowing clients to move from table to table. Another model program was a daylong virtual expungement clinic, allowing students to prepare beforehand and advise clients in a virtual setting.

One key aspect of managing online clinics are the client management systems that allow for remote work. Client management systems offer cloud computing and storage, with some systems even allowing document sharing with non-attorneys. For example, Clio, a cloud-based client management system, allows document sharing with clients and other third parties. Clinical instruction on client management systems familiarizes law students with the nuances of working in a modern law firm environment. However, given the security and privacy risks involved with cloud data and file-sharing of confidential files, this software should be taught before students step foot into the real world of legal practice.

(Clio’s dashboard allows you to share documents with third parties.)

Despite all this, the main hurdle of the pivot to virtual legal clinics was maintaining community engagement. Law schools have traditionally held offices either in the community or on campus to physically connect students to their clients. Since the pandemic hit, this connection has been relegated to online Zoom meetings, telephone conferences, emails, and the good old United States Postal Service for document delivery. While CALICon presented the lack of community engagement as an obstacle, the presenters viewed the lack of physical interaction as a boon for access to justice. For example, UNT Dallas held general legal advice Zoom sessions, which could reach more members of the community than hosting the same meeting in a physical space.

If you would like to check out any of the CALICon sessions on clinics and engagement, you can view this session as well as other sessions on their YouTube channel: