Ottawa’s student legal aid clinic: learning about more than just the law

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Louise Toone, staff lawyer at Ottawa’s bilingual Student Legal Aid Service Society (SLASS), about the hands-on legal experience her law students are getting by working at the university’s legal clinic.

The SLASS is situated right next to the Faculty of Law on the University of Ottawa campus, in an old multi-level house full of character, creaky stairs, and over 40 part-time law students. These students are all part of the law program’s clinic course, which runs for the duration of the school year and earns them six academic credits.

“The clinic opens up a door to legal aid work and to what the field is really like,” said Louise. Here students provide mostly criminal law services, balancing three to four case files at a time. From the initial client interview, to disclosure with the Crown Attorney’s office, to negotiating settlement and trials, students go from beginning to end with their client, all under the supervision of a lawyer. The clinic’s four full-time lawyers meet with the students regularly, to check-in and monitor their progress.

A hands-on experience

By working at the SLASS, students are truly getting a hands-on experience. Louise explained that most of the law program courses are theory-based, so by working in a clinic setting students have an opportunity to see what the practice really looks like. There are no exams and no papers. Instead, students are evaluated on the quality of their work with clients.

That being said, students are learning about more than just the law. “Our students are learning about clients with mental health problems, with language barriers, and substance abuse problems. One day their client has a phone number or address, and the next day they’re completely off the grid. There are a lot of client management issues to deal with,” said Louise.

In addition to providing guidance and mentorship, the Ottawa SLASS staff teaches students all the necessary skills that will allow them to work on a client file, such as how to prepare for an interview and hearing, ethics, and drafting.

The clinic course is a highly successful program. Louise emphasized that “the students absolutely love it.” While there’s an initial learning curve, the clinic appreciates that students aren’t leaving as soon as they get comfortable. “There’s a good opportunity for them to get a real feel for things.”

In addition to taking on clients, the Ottawa SLASS provides community legal education as a component to their work. The clinic course students go out and speak to agencies in the communities serving similar clientele, on a variety of topics. Agencies range from groups teaching English as a second language, to homeless shelters, the AIDS committee of Ottawa, and the youth services bureau. With over 100 presentations a year, the students are constantly reviewing the content for legal accuracy, and tailoring the presentations to fit various audience demographics.

About the Ottawa Student Legal Aid Service Society

The clinic serves primarily low-income Ottawa people and students, with around 150 open files at any one time. While the second and third-year students at the SLASS do primarily criminal law work, there are opportunities available at legal aid clinics across the city for students who wish to pursue other areas, such as family or refugee law. Through this joint program, the clinic course currently has 10 additional students placed at community legal clinics in Ottawa.

During the summer, students completing their first year of law school can apply for a full-time job at the clinic. These students balance around 15 cases files at a time.

Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) funds six SLASS, which operate out of Ontario’s various law schools across the province. Volunteer law students provide legal advice and represent clients in cases such as minor crimes, landlord and tenant issues, and tribunals, all under the supervision of full-time lawyers.

Brenna Hurley

About Brenna Hurley

Brenna joined LAO in July, 2012 and is the organization’s Stakeholder Relations Coordinator. She completed her Bachelor of Public Relations from Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Brenna has a PR background that includes internal communications, social media, and stakeholder relations. She loves to cook (and apologizes if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a new recipe), and has a passion for travelling, skiing, and strong coffee. Follow her on Twitter at @LAO_BHurley.