Monday, 2 December 2013

Observations on the Benefits of International Clinical Placements for Law Students

by Sarah Cooper, Barrister and Senior Lecturer in Law, BCU Law School

In October 2013, I attended the Clinical Legal Education Organisation Workshop hosted by the University of Portsmouth.  Given my experience co-directing Birmingham City University’s American Legal Practice (ALP) Programme, which is the largest UK – USA legal internship programme in the UK, I was invited to sit on a panel discussing international clinical placements for law students. To date, BCU has provided around 500 students with the opportunity to work pro bono in an American law office, project or organisation for academic credit, and has created relationships with over 100 hundred host partners. Along with my colleagues at the Centre for American Studies at BCU (Professor Julian Killingley and Dr Jon Yorke), I also contribute to the Amicus Training Programme that readies students and professionals to undertake death penalty internships in America. This blog post shares some of the main benefits of international clinical placements.

Student Experience and Employability
Internships provide an excellent student experience and demanding learning curve by thrusting students into dynamic and unfamiliar working environments. Students can finally put theory into practice. Students are expected to conform to office etiquette and handle the pressures of often stressful work environments, such as court rooms, prisons and crime scenes. Students handle a plethora of work tasks including legal research, motion/ brief drafting, presentation formulation, witness and client interviews, and jury selection analysis and legal strategy meetings. They also engage with a variety of professionals including attorneys, psychiatrists, investigators and public officials, which encourages the development of a variety of social skills that are imperative to them becoming successful professionals. Students are exposed to a diverse range of political, cultural and lifestyle choices in the US and are asked to embrace and understand the differences between the people, places and opinions they encounter. The fact that students carry out their internships pro bono encourages them to develop a sense of community responsibility, economic considerations and to understand the wider use of the skills they have learnt in Higher Education. By creating more personable, confident, well-rounded and internationally aware young adults international clinical placements can have a massive intellectual impact.

National and International Impact
Students engage with very important work. For example, BCU students have worked on the defence cases of those alleged to have been involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, they have worked in the New York City Headquarters of the United Nations on refugee, gender and various ‘right to life’ issues, and at the American Bar Association in Washington DC, contributing to major research projects concerning prosecutorial misconduct. We have also had three students serve as clerks for a Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge, and a Civil Court judge in Chicago. Numerous students have worked for the National Innocence Network and contributed to the work of innocence and justice projects. Others have worked on death penalty and serious felony cases for indigent defendants at industrious organizations such as the West Texas Public Defenders Office in Lubbock, Texas and the Death Penalty Litigation Clinic in Kansas City, Missouri.  Students are exposed to the most prestigious legal organisations in the United States and thus the programme not only offers students an opportunity to observe world issues from a front line position, it provides them with a genuine opportunity to shape them.

Student Achievement
The majority of students obtain first class grades for their practical performance as interns from their host.  Students clearly perform excellently in their personal as well as professional interactions, and absorb a lot of useful information in short periods of time. A number of our students have even been offered jobs by their hosts after completing their internships. An internship of this kind, of course, is also an attractive feature on a CV. Many of our students have reported their internships have been a focus point for discussions at job interviews, scholarship applications, and applications for further study.

Of course difficulties can also arise when providing international clinical placements.  The appropriate provision of academic training can be overly intensive for students, and, in particular, training students in cultural and political nuances can be tricky. Moreover, the making of logistical arrangements can be resource intensive (for academics and students), as can the development of new contacts and sustaining of long-term host partners. There is also a lot of intuition that goes into placing students. There is a particular knack to knowing what type of student will suit a particular host. Also, sometimes students may only realise an international placement is not for them when they arrive on foreign soil, as such it is also important to develop contingency plans.

In my experience, the benefits of international clinical placements far outweigh these potential difficulties. Moreover, at a time when students must distinguish themselves in order to successfully compete in a job market that is becoming increasingly global in nature, an international clinical placement may be the key to success.