Dalhousie Legal Aid Clinic: A student’s perspective

My name is Nathaniel. I am a third-year law student and I just spent the summer semester at Dalhousie Legal Aid Service (“DLAS” or “the Clinic”). In this piece I discuss (i) a brief description of DLAS, (ii) a short summary of my work there, and (iii) some thoughts I’ve had about that work. As a disclaimer: I have not consulted widely on this piece. My thoughts and experiences are intended to represent those of neither clinic staff nor clinic students in general. Rather, they reflect my own time at DLAS, which I hope prospective clinic students and others find informative.

 What DLAS Is

DLAS is a community-based law clinic on Gottingen Street in Halifax. It is run by the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University (“Schulich”) and receives funding from Schulich, the Nova Scotia Legal Aid Commission, the Law Foundation of Nova Scotia and clinic alumni, friends of Dalhousie Legal Aid Service, and special events.[1]

DLAS has a poverty law mandate. It represents low-income clients on their individual files and advocates more broadly on issues that affect them.  It is also a teaching clinic. Each semester, twelve to sixteen of Schulich’s third-year law students each spend four months working on twenty-odd individual cases and a couple of community files under the supervision of staff lawyers and community legal workers.

What I Did at DLAS

Here are some things I did at DLAS. First, I did lots of legal writing. I wrote many letters – letter-writing is a big part of students’ role there. I wrote to clients, opposing parties, and the courts. I drafted other documents, such as affidavits, briefs, orders, and settlement agreements. I had lots of client contact. I made submissions many times – I spoke on minor procedural matters, I made substantive arguments, and I examined witnesses.

My Reflections on Clinic Work

Here is what I found: the Clinic was whatever I made of it. I had some files that went poorly. I had other files that went well. Sometimes cases dragged on for reasons outside of my control. Some were dormant, others had bad facts, and some had difficult clients. But as I reflect upon my work, I know that files suffered when they received less care and initiative.

With few exceptions, my work was better when I was more proactive. I helped advance cases when I reviewed the disclosure multiple times, when I tracked down loose ends, and when I sought out instructions from clients and supervisors. When I took ownership of files, I made contributions. I found openings to damage the credibility of witnesses, subtle details that bolstered our theory of the case, and supporting case-law that strengthened the theory of the case.

Not all my contributions were useful – there were plenty of times when supervisors explained why certain routes were impractical, illogical, or irrelevant. Nor was all my time well-spent.  I often wasted hours spinning my wheels, when I could have asked for help earlier. But if I did not try on my own, then I did not contribute much to the file – simply executing a supervisor’s strategy meant that I did only what they would have done, but at half the speed.

Following supervisors’ instructions tended to serve clients fine. The staff at DLAS are experienced advocates and provide invaluable guidance to the students. If I went to them empty-handed, they would still usually help – many knew that I was strapped for time and they would provide answers. But whenever I did so, I learned less.

At minimum, it was better to research clients’ options after finding a problem. It was better to approach a supervisor with suggestions for who to call next, what to submit, and what to argue. That way, they could reject ideas, accept ideas, or point me in a new direction. In that way, I would start to figure out what works and what does not.

Ultimately, clients retain DLAS staff to resolve disputes. They need an advocate, or someone to uphold their interests, when such interests conflict with those of ex-partners, landlords, and the Crown. The Clinic offers students an introduction to such advocacy. It gives us a space to begin transitioning from legal study to legal practice. It provides a place to experience what it means to advise and represent – to have others rely upon us during critical times, but with the reassuring safety-net of close supervision.

None of these thoughts should strike readers as news – the idea that greater care and initiative correlate to improved vocational and educational outcomes is almost trite.  But experiencing this notion gave me confidence. While there were obviously moments of frustration, my semester at the Clinic showed me that with a little care and tenacity, students can learn what they need to effectively help their clients. So for first and second-years who are considering DLAS, there are definitely worse ways to get thirteen credits in third-year.

[1] https://www.dal.ca/faculty/law/dlas/about-dalhousie-legal-aid.html