Accessible justice through law school public interest programming | Dana Rotenberg

By Dana Rotenberg

Law360 Canada (September 22, 2023, 9:28 AM EDT) --
Dana Rotenberg
Dana Rotenberg
It is an honour to have been invited by the Honourable Andromache Karakatsanis to write a guest column on the connection between access to justice and legal education. As law students across the country settle into the academic year, this is certainly a timely topic to explore.

In the context of long-standing and significant unmet legal need, leveraging the abilities and enthusiasm of law students who are eager to gain practical experience and create a positive impact presents a myriad of opportunity for improving access to justice. Through innovative clinical and experiential programming, law students support clients and communities facing barriers to justice in varying roles and across virtually all areas of law. While the impact on clients receiving support and law students providing this support is perhaps more apparent, I want to briefly consider the larger picture of how law school public interest programming contributes to a legal profession that is more humane and equipped to deliver accessible justice.  

I have the privilege of being the national director of Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC). Through student-led chapters at 22 Canadian law schools, PBSC trains and places volunteer law students to boost the capacity of community organizations serving people facing barriers to justice — all under the supervision of pro bono lawyers and notaries. PBSC’s national office also operates the Family Justice Centre and partners with the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres (OFIFC) to run the Indigenous Human Rights Program.

PBSC has cultivated a growing community of alumni and supporters who are committed to advancing our core values of dignity, equity and humility. We are particularly fortunate for the ongoing support of Chief Justice Richard Wagner. To honour his meaningful support, PBSC launched the Chief Justice Richard Wagner Awards in 2019 to recognize outstanding student volunteers across the country who exemplify PBSC’s values.

At an award ceremony in the program’s inaugural year, the chief justice remarked: “… when it comes to access to justice, it’s simply not enough to open the door — we need to invite people in. We need people of action, who will dedicate their time and energy, and force the legal community out of its comfort zone.”

It is this pivotal but often missed step of inviting people in that law school public interest programming prepares future lawyers to undertake. When trained and supervised law students engage with clients (particularly those from communities who have been historically marginalized) at this formative stage in their legal careers, they have a unique opportunity to observe firsthand the limits and barriers created/perpetrated by the law and our legal systems. With this increased awareness and in conjunction with robust training (as will be discussed below), these students will enter the legal profession armed with tools to disrupt historically exclusionary and inequitable practices and policies, resulting in a profession with increased capacity to serve the public purposefully and effectively.

There are several hallmarks of law school public interest experiential programming that I believe equip new lawyers, and, in turn, the legal profession, to actively foster inclusive access to justice. I will briefly touch on two of these qualities with reference to how PBSC implements them in approaching our work.

Emphasis on capacity-building

As with many law school public interest programs, PBSC recognizes the critical need to go beyond training focused solely on substantive knowledge to include opportunities to build capacity and competency to challenge systemic inequities. To facilitate this growth, we curate learning opportunities for our students and extended network. In our current program year, these sessions have included: anti-oppression, Indigenous worldviews and cultural competency, gender expression and identity, trauma-informed lawyering, authentic allyship, barriers to justice and legal practice, self-care and stress management.

Supplementary training is also offered to PBSC volunteer law students by the community organizations with whom we partner with the object of imparting project-specific knowledge to support students to engage with their work (whether it be direct client assistance, public legal education, or research-based initiatives) in an informed, compassionate and productive way. Examples of these training opportunities include sessions on trans competency, cultural sensitivity, gender identity and sexuality and cultural humility and empathy.

An understanding of how specific groups are/have been oppressed by systemic inequities and how to engage in authentic and meaningful allyship is crucial to providing effective legal services. Without engaging in ongoing learning that extends beyond substantive legal and procedural knowledge, there is a real risk of perpetuating harm both in individual client interactions and at the profession-wide level. Instilling in law students the importance of continuous growth and active capacity-building is fundamental to creating a profession that strives to serve clients and community responsively and therefore impactfully.

On a related note, it has been heartening to see the evolution of law school curriculum to include courses and seminars that go beyond substantive law to support students in developing knowledge and skills to expand their ability to effectively confront disparities in access to justice. These offerings (alongside the multitude of public interest clinical/experiential programs) ascribe value to this learning, which promotes the importance of capacity-building as a critical component of legal competence and professionalism.

Fostering humility

PBSC’s emphasis on capacity-building is rooted in our core value of humility. We understand humility as valuing the wisdom of the communities we serve and ensuring that their lived experiences inform our work. As such, we prioritize listening, learning and self-reflection. This approach is complementary to the concept of “people-centred justice,” which is premised on the active engagement of those experiencing barriers to justice to ensure their needs are understood, given precedence and form the basis for justice goals and associated action.

Law school public interest programming often emphasizes the importance of “reflective practice,” particularly in the context of providing services to communities who have been historically marginalized. Reflective practice supports law students in thinking critically about their experiences and to approach their work with curiosity, open minds, empathy and humility. This critical introspection is crucial in the cultivation of a profession that views lived experience as a central component that informs our ability to provide accessible legal services.

At PBSC, we value collaboration with our community partners to ensure our programming is responsive to the needs of the communities we seek to serve. To engage meaningfully necessitates an acknowledgment that there is much to be learned and that one’s knowledge and experience is necessarily limited. While this approach may create discomfort (particularly in the law school environment), it is precisely this unease that stimulates growth and fosters a philosophy of legal practice that assigns importance to listening, learning and self-reflection. In this way, we strive to promote a legal profession that is responsive, compassionate and capable of delivering meaningful access to justice.

Not only does public interest experiential programming deliver immediate impact to clients, it also contributes to our profession’s capacity to “invite people in” through the cultivation of future leaders, advocates and allies who approach lawyering with humility and a desire for continuous learning. I am endlessly inspired by the dedication and commitment of law students who, through their experiential placements, challenge systems that perpetuate inequities in accessing legal services. With each new cohort of students entering the profession equipped with these skills and (self-) awareness, my optimism for our potential to narrow the justice gap grows.

Dana Rotenberg (she/her) is the national director of Pro Bono Students Canada, whose mission is to provide free legal support to people and communities facing barriers to justice through law student engagement. Dana originally joined PBSC in 2020 as manager of family law programming. She led the development and launch of the Family Justice Centre, a first-of-its-kind virtual legal clinic leveraging the skills and enthusiasm of law students and pro bono lawyers to provide crucial services to Ontarians experiencing barriers to justice.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, LexisNexis Canada, Law360 Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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