Raising Consciousness, Deepening Knowledge & Building Bridges: SRLs and the Law Schools

Raising Consciousness, Deepening Knowledge & Building Bridges: SRLs and the Law Schools

Since the establishment of NSRLP in 2013, we have been looking for ways to humanize and normalize the experience of so many Canadians who now come to court without counsel – individuals who either began with a lawyer at their side but ran out of funds – or who found the traditional retainer + full-representation model of legal services simply unaffordable from the get-go.

Throwback to “SRL for a Day

An early initiative was “SRL for a Day”, when we paired leading members of the Ontario legal profession (Law Society management, Benchers, and professional association presidents) with SRLs for a morning in the courts in downtown Toronto.

Accompanied by SRL “escorts”, members of the profession experienced the courts from a different perspective – that of the overwhelmed, anxious and stressed-out SRL. They watched from the back of the courtroom as SRLs presented their cases; sat in the registries and saw the lines of people trying to file their documents; observed the efforts of the court services, information services staff and duty counsel in assisting SRLs; and talked with their SRL “buddy” – and others they met in the courtroom – about what this experience is really like for them.

The learning that day was mutual – in the lunchtime sit-down discussion, participants from the profession described the experience as “eye-opening” and “fascinating.” For their SRL partners who toured them around, the event enabled them “to finally feel heard.”

Bring a SRL to Law School Day

The same goal of shared experience coming from different perspectives motivated our recent law school event, Bring a SRL to Law School Day”. Initiated last year at Windsor Law, on March 14 2016 – with the able assistance and dedication of my team of law students, and in particular, Gurleen Gill (Law 2) – NSRLP expanded the event to 2 other Ontario law schools.

Denise Final Draft

Bring a SRL to Law School Day aims to raise law students’ awareness of the SRL phenomenon, and the reasons why we see more and more Canadians coming to court without a lawyer. This year’s campaign posters emphasized that SRLs are regular Canadians who cannot afford legal services – they are not an aberration – in fact, they are possibly any one of us if faced with a similar situation requiring legal assistance.

 

As our current law students enter legal practice, they will inevitably – if they offer personal legal services – encounter SRLs. They will have clients who cannot afford to continue with full representation, and who may ask them for different – perhaps task-based, or coaching – types of assistance. They will encounter SRLs on the other side of their own cases, and must work to establish relationships which balance their duty to their own client with the overriding need to advance a good outcome.

The new world of client relations

Teaching law students and prospective lawyers something about the SRL phenomenon is closely related to teaching them about a new and modernized culture of lawyer/client relationships.

Because even without the added challenge of working with SRLs, those graduating from our law schools for the past decade have been walking into a client culture that is often sharply at odds with their expectations.

At odds because law schools – and some members of the senior Bar – continue to promote an outmoded culture of lawyer/client relationships, disassociated from modern-day realities. In the face of all the evidence to the contrary, these include:

  • The belief that the lawyer is still “in-charge” (my critique of the “lawyer-in-charge” model in The New Lawyer is now 8 years old and even more true today).
  • The assumption that if something goes wrong, the client (and not the lawyer) is to blame for being too obstinate/ inflexible/ unreasonable.

On reaching practice, whether domestic or corporate, more and more lawyers are experiencing (and some are seeking) a very different relationship with their clients – who will no longer simply nod in awed agreement at everything their professional advisor tells them, but may have some relevant thoughts and feelings of their own.

With apologies to our law students who have to deal with all this change, as well as be saddled with the largest student debt load in generations – I believe that it is important to add the SRL disruption to their consciousness-raising about SRLs also. This is why NSRLP started this process with Bring a SRL to Law School Day.

Feedback on Bring a SRL to Law School Day

Since we held this event two weeks ago, I have heard from numerous faculty and students about the benefits of this “eye-opening” experience. In the words of one of the student organizers at the University of Ottawa, Sarvenaz Assadpour:

“The Bring a Self-Represented Litigant to School Day event exposed law students to the everyday realities of the Canadian justice system. As students, we are mainly concerned with legally relevant facts, which do not always take into account the personal hardship litigants go through.”

And from Gurleen Gill, NSRLP research assistant and the overall event coordinator:

“To hear of the lived experience of SRLs through their own voices and words provided a unique appreciation for their plight, not readily obtained from our law readings and lectures. Every SRL had a remarkable story to tell, but unfortunately the issues and barriers they face are largely the same.”

The SRLs who attended at the three venues have also been eloquent in their praise for the benefits of this simple effort at inclusivity and collaboration. Their comments also demonstrate both the importance and the value of the law schools extending respect and civility towards SRLs, who may not have had this experience before in the justice system. For example:

“The SRL panel discussion at lunchtime created a welcome window of opportunity to have a healthy discourse and dialogue between students, professors, and SRLs. We collaborated in building bridges to help us understand each other’s point of view. This process marks the beginning of a new relationship. There is a wind of change heading our way, with the silent majority requesting to be heard and their needs acknowledged.” (Jana Saracevic, former SRL, attendee at the Osgoode Hall event)

“I met so many exceptional people at your school yesterday, from the Dean to the professors, and absolutely each and every one of the amazingly helpful and friendly student buddies and class participants who interacted with me. Thank you so much for the respect and kindness you showed us as SRLs, and for the opportunity to let us speak.” (Barbara Captijn, former SRL, also an attendee at the Osgoode Hall event)

A SRL Curriculum for the Law Schools

Eighteen months ago, I wrote a blog called “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about SRLs, But Were Afraid to Ask: A Proposed SRL Curriculum

 There was very little response to this blog, and none of the input I had hoped to receive from other legal educators.

Perhaps Bring a SRL to Law School Day 2016 will catalyze a more substantive conversation about how to ensure that the lawyers of tomorrow leave law school with some knowledge, skills and understanding that will help them to engage constructively with the SRLs they will meet in their practice.

To that end, I reproduce below a proposed SRL curriculum. I believe that the objectives listed here could be achieved via any number of classes – including but not limited to Access to Justice/ Legal Process courses, Civil Procedure classes, and Legal Profession seminars.

All thoughts and comments are most welcome.

In addition, if you think that your law school might want to participate in Bring a SRL to Law School Day in 2017, please email us.

A Proposed SRL Curriculum

(1) Knowledge goals

Law students and future lawyers need to know and to understand:

  • What is the present volume of self-represented litigants (SRLs) in family and civil (and criminal) court in Canada;
  • How this phenomenon impacts legal practice, the courts, and individuals;
  • What are the complex reasons – both individual and systemic – for the precipitous rise in this number over the past decade;
  • The significance of affordability in accessing legal services as contributing to the rise of self-representation;
  • What types of services and programs are available to SRLs via: (i) court services (ii) public legal assistance (iii) the community;
  • What are the professional obligations of a lawyer when interacting with a SRL: (i) in court (ii) in written communications (iii) in negotiation/ mediation (iv) in informal conversations;
  • What types of legal services lawyers can offer SRLs who cannot afford or are unwilling to accept a traditional retainer full-representation model (including, limited- scope representation, legal coaching, summary advice, fixed-fee bundles);
  • What types of legal services can be offered by those with skills and experience but not licensed to practice law to the primarily self-represented (including, legal information and orientation, emotional support, a McKenzie friend).

(2) Skills and attitudes goals

Law students and future lawyers should be equipped to:

  • Interact professionally, courteously and effectively with a SRL whom they encounter in any context;
  • Explain to their own client the ways in which working with a SRL on the other side might affect that client’s own experience and how this situation relates to their own professional obligations;
  • Explain to a prospective client who is concerned about the cost of legal services and/or unable to afford traditional legal services the potential value of appropriate and affordable services, and their own expertise;
  • Explain and draft a limited-scope retainer agreement or other alternative business arrangement;
  • Continuously promote their clients’ interests while balancing the necessity of working constructively with a SRL on the other side, providing clear information to their client throughout.

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