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Every law school should have a legal research clinic

Typing on laptop

Legal research clinics offer a variety of benefits to students. The clinics provide real-world opportunities for students to learn and grow their skills, not just in respect of the law, but also in the broader practice of being a lawyer – from thorough research and analysis, to working in a team, and productively balancing competing priorities. Students who have engaged in legal research clinics will carry with them valuable experience from which to draw in practice.

At Bond University, there is a newly established Internet Law Research Clinic.  The clinic is supervised by legal academics and enables law students to volunteer their time during their degree to gain practical insight and experience in the area of legal technology and internet law solutions.  Student volunteers work on projects related to access to legal technology, internet regulation, and cyber security issues, amongst others.

Whether it be space law, the use of satellites, or access to the internet, our Bond law students are engaging in cutting-edge research in the tech space.  This blog post highlights both the benefits and challenges around the use of legal research clinics in legal education by clinic coordinators Melanie Jackson and Jenny Georgiades and clinic researcher Holli Edwards.

What are legal research clinics? 

Not as commonplace as traditional legal advice clinics, a legal research clinic is predominantly focused on project-based research and often described as a bottom-up approach to research.  Our students work with clients in the technology sector by providing research on a variety of different internet law-based projects.    

How are legal research clinics different from traditional law clinics and how do they benefit students?

The kind of experience offered by legal research clinics allows students to hone their skills in finding the law and, equally importantly, interpreting the law and applying that to the client’s needs. While traditional law clinics may provide some similar experience, legal research clinics facilitate a much deeper engagement with legal materials and analysis. The work conducted by the students is really from the ground up, often traversing a range of legal issues and sometimes jurisdictions to find and advise a client on their legal options.  The international aspect of the research has meant that the students have been exposed to cross-border research.  Students have had to upskill in their ability to conduct legal research in foreign language jurisdictions.

As research clinics are not always client-focused (students are not necessarily having to resolve a client problem), students often have longer to work on research projects and develop their research and analytical skills to a high level.  Students are also exposed to academic writing at a higher level if working on research papers and research outputs.  It is a great way for students wanting to dip their toes in the academic world to see if they enjoy the in-depth research required for a future in academia or HDR studies.

Here are our top tips for running a successful legal research clinic:

  1. Be organised!  The biggest tip for academics who would like to launch a legal research clinic is to organise, organise, organise!  This applies not just to the planning process for what the clinic will focus on but also to the practical aspects (like using SharePoint or another team site), and ensuring timely meetings.  Once a general area of specialisation or focus is set for the clinic, time should be spent breaking down the selected clinic projects into manageable deliverables. You’ll thank yourself for the time you spend creating a clear and achievable task list (and so will the students!). Equally, ensuring students are allocated specific tasks early, within a broader team context, so everyone knows what they are meant to be doing is vital.
  2. Make the students accountable. Accountability of students and transparent research processes are also important to establish before the clinic starts.  Students should feel motivated to complete their work on time, and that there are consequences – just like in the workplace – for procrastinating past a deadline.  Frequent engagement with students and feedback will help build this ethos. Having clear research processes in place, where the recording of information is consistent and properly cited should also be instilled in the students. This is good practice not just for the clinic but also for their later careers in legal practice too.
  3. Mentor, don’t stifle.  Finding a balance between giving students adequate direction and clarity of the minutia of their tasks, with allowing them to develop and demonstrate initiative and self-directed learning, is an unenviable task for clinic supervisors.  Adaptions must be made depending on the student group and each individual’s capabilities so that all students gain the benefits these clinics have to offer.  Remembering that the clinic is still part of an educational setting and that students are there to learn is at the forefront of our minds as legal educators. 

Supporting law students in their legal research journey has been hugely rewarding.  Legal research clinics can bridge the gap between legal practice and academia, demonstrating that there is ‘space’ (pardon the pun) for academic research to serve the needs of the community and provide exciting opportunities for our law students. 

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