Creativity and Commerce: The rise of the experiential business law clinic in the UK

Paper presented at the 2015 CLEA Conference in Glasgow

Victoria Gleason and Elaine Campbell
University of Northumbria

Pro bono legal advice provided by way of university law clinics was historically driven by societal need and traditionally offered to those on low incomes. Clinical legal education programmes have therefore focussed on the personal – family, housing, welfare benefits, employment and consumer issues – and cases which involve some form of litigation.

Whilst the United States has had transactional law clinics since the 1970s, in the United Kingdom the provision of free legal advice to entrepreneurs has largely been ignored by established and new university law clinics. Indeed, this type of service is regularly criticised as being at odds with the social justice mission of clinical legal education.

In the past few years, however, there has been somewhat of a sea change. More universities are adding the “small business” or “entrepreneur” clinic to their experiential programmes. As with clinic generally, they come in various forms – in-house/external supervisors, assessed/voluntary, means tested/open door. This has been a response to developments in the marketplace and the demand for commercially aware graduates.

We are clinical supervisors in the oldest in-house business law clinic, based in the Student Law Office at Northumbria University, Newcastle. Each year, 24 final year law undergraduates provide advice to a broad range of businesses under our supervision. Amongst other matters, students working in our clinic can find themselves explaining to clients the advantages and disadvantages of different business entities, providing advice and representation when a business infringes another’s registered trade mark, ensuring that an e-business owner understands the law relating to internet sales and drafting the terms and conditions which protect them. As with other clinical programmes, the skills that students develop include letter writing, practical legal research and giving face to face advice. However, we argue that the business law clinic exposes students to more than this; it allows for a rich experience that encompasses and promotes entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation in the curriculum. A unique aspect of our clinic, for example, is the way that it provides students with the opportunity to acquire networking and business development skills and to develop their understanding of commercial awareness in a number of contexts. In addition, there are distinct professional development issues – what makes a good entrepreneur and does it matter if you don’t think your client is one?

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