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Student Supervision

Providing students with feedback during the course of a term is vital to the development of the student. How one sets-up a clinic determines the mode and method for much of this feedback. One model places students in the role of primary representative of clients. Though faculty members supervise everything students do, in this model students are the clients’ main contact. Supervision of students occurs with students submitting drafts of emails, letters, and documents to faculty supervisors who must review, comment upon and return them to students in a timely manner. Incorporating the time necessary to do this is essential to operating a transactional clinic. Often students will meet with clients instead of or in addition to communicating through written means. Reviewing outlines of the meetings or simulating conversations are other ways to supervise these types of matters. Some clinics do this by an informal, “as needed” basis. Others have more structured, regularly scheduled supervisory sessions with students over the course of the term. In any regard, supervision is essential to not only ensuring that a clinic’s clients receive the best counsel, but also that its students are not practicing law without a license. Having students come prepared to present their strategy, plan, or analysis to supervisors at meetings where supervisors act as “consultants” rather than “partners in charge,” empowers students to produce their very best work. A limiting factor to this approach is the sophistication of work that can be produced for a client since the students’ ability is the driving force behind the work.

A common decision to be made in the “student as primary counsel” model is whether a faculty supervisor should be in attendance during client meetings and phone calls. Some faculty members are uneasy about students meeting or speaking with clients outside of their presence for fear that the students will commit malpractice. If “in the room” with students, a faculty supervisor can step in if the students go astray. However, when “in the room,” some faculty supervisors have a difficult time maintaining their role as lifeguard. They will sometimes take over a meeting at the expense of students. Correspondingly, students may not completely embrace their role as primary counsel when their supervisor is in the room with a client. Even clients will often look to the faculty supervisor when questions arise. One of the most important lessons that any law student (or lawyer) can learn is when and how to tell a client that they don’t know the answer to a question. Supervisors who are in the room with a student during client meetings can impede this lesson.

Some clinics employ real-time, closed-circuit video feeds from their clinic conference rooms to their desks to avoid having supervisors be present in a room with students and clients. This allows professors to still monitor interactions and advice being given without the risks discussed above. Clinics that have this ability usually also have the ability to video record meetings. Debriefing a meeting with a student by going over the recording can be invaluable as can self-critiques by students themselves.

An alternative clinical model to the one discussed above features faculty members as primary counsel and students more like associates to partners. This method allows for the inclusion of more sophisticated matters and can be more efficient in terms of work output. Students may be given discrete tasks or may even be charged with completion of significant matters but do not have “ownership” over the client. The client thinks of the faculty member as their primary contact and lead counsel. Likewise, students funnel all communication through the faculty person. Supervision under this model is different. Instead of helping students think through their own strategy, plan, and analysis, a supervisor must help students think through his thought process. Since it is usually the faculty person that has the big picture perspective of a matter, students will need to be educated on what it is they are doing, how it fits with the larger matter, and whether their work satisfied the needs of the client. This model need not exist in competition with the former model but can be used in tandem, depending on the needs of a client.

Regardless of which model of faculty involvement one employs, scheduling and preparing for supervision sessions is important. Often students will simply stop-by a supervisor’s office when a question arises. We call these “drive-by” supervisions. Every clinician has his or her own talents, skills, and preferences. For some, the “drive-by” supervision is fine in that the issue confronting the student is fresh in their mind and the supervisor has no problem setting aside whatever else they were working on to engage in a discussion. Other clinicians, will discourage the “drive-by” and ask students to make an appointment. This allows the student to collect his or her thoughts and present them in a more succinct, organized, and comprehensible manner. Either way, it is something that should be employed deliberately rather than reactively.

The final arena where student supervision often occurs is during clinic-wide sessions involving all clinic students, called “Case Rounds.” Case Rounds provide a forum where students can present issues they are dealing with to the larger group either for feedback or brainstorming. They can also be used to present case studies of clients’ problems and resulting resolutions found by students. This method draws from medical education’s “grand rounds” tradition. For students that are developing their own insights and modes of analysis, seeing how others deal with similar problems not only adds to their insight, but can build confidence as well.

All of the supervision discussed above tends to deal with specific client matters. It is often useful to step back and give students feedback about their general performance. One method of doing this is to conduct mid-term evaluations. This gives both the instructor and the student an opportunity to address any issues that may be impeding the development of the student. At the same time, it is an opportunity for the student to provide feedback about the Clinic administration and teaching (see Evaluations and Surveys for more information). Transactional clinics use of reflection papers and journals are an adoption of core clinical teaching methodology.

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