Evaluation of Student Experiences

Evaluation of Student Experiences

– Diana Tindall

Twenty-four UBC and UVIC law students completed externships at Rise Women’s Legal Centre in 2016 or 2017. 

All 24 of these law students gained experience practising legal, community lawyer, ethics and practice management skills according to their supervisors’ evaluations. (Average ratings were highest for their ethics and community lawyer skills. Average ratings were lowest for their practice management skills.) While most students came into the Centre with relatively high levels of each skill set, each student applied or improved their skills and/or knowledge about substantive law and the practice of law according to their supervisors’ evaluations. Eighteen of these 24 students completed exit surveys. All 18 of these students also agreed their skills and/or knowledge about substantive law and the practice of law improved by this experience. 

 When asked about their best experiences at Rise, students mentioned:

  • when they were able to help clients and their positive reactions, 
  • being co-involved in the decision-making on files not just processing others’ decisions, 
  • learning about working with clients and practice management,
  • the legal experiences they had, and 
  • working with others passionate about the work. 

When asked about their worst experiences at Rise or about what could be improved, students mentioned:

  • the sheer volume of intakes and files and other caseload management challenges,
  • the emotional demands of the work,
  • some of the seminar/orientation/paper components, and 
  • examples of when they were not able to help clients. 

Rise stakeholders were surveyed in June 2017 and July 2018.  Twenty-three stakeholder surveys included comments on what has worked well with respect to the students working at Rise, relating to: 

  • the students themselves – that they are compassionate, committed, diligent, a pleasure to work with and enjoy what they are doing 
  • the information and support provided to students – the training, supervision, workshops, mentorships and research opportunities 
  • the practical skills and learning gained by students 

These stakeholders also made suggestions for improvements including with respect to: the scheduling (in accordance with academic terms) which may impact cases and the number of cases/caseloads which may be overwhelming (in terms of quantity and quality) for students, student recruitment as well as more court opportunities. 

Fifteen of the 18 students completing exit surveys agreed they were more likely to practice family law than when they started. They reported being encouraged to practice family law by their personal interests, the personal nature of the issues, their interest in being a solo practitioner, their interactions with clients and the potential for them to have a positive meaningful impact on someone’s life. They reported being discouraged to practice family law by a lack of articling opportunities, the intense emotional demands, their lack of interest in being a solo practitioner and the potential to have a big negative impact on someone’s life. 

“I definitely want to do family law. I already wanted to do family law before this externship, however, this experience has firmly solidified my intentions to build my legal career in the field of family law exclusively. Ideally, I would love to work in a mid-size or larger firm where I could predominantly work on files where the parties have relatively equal bargaining power. I would focus my pro bono practice on family violence files.” – Law Student (2016)

“I think I’m just as likely or more likely to practice family law. I want to help address the problem of access to justice in family law, particularly for low income women. I eventually want to get some experience with ADR practices in family law, and I would love at some point to work as a family law mediator.” – Law Student (2016)

 “This clinical experience confirmed my impression that family law is an interesting, challenging and complex area. I am more likely to practice family law than when I started.” – Law Student (2017) 

All 18 students completing exit surveys agreed they were more likely to do pro bono work in the future. Several noted it continued or increased their previous interest in this work.

“Definitely. I have a much better understanding of the need for lawyers, especially family law lawyers, to offer pro bono services to women, particularly those who are low-income, experiencing family violence, or facing other challenges to learning about and enforcing their legal rights (for example, language or cultural barriers, etc.)” – Law Student (2016)

“I had already been volunteering with [an organization], so was familiar with the needs of clients in extreme poverty who were also facing other forms of oppression. Working at Rise made me appreciate that even people who are doing better than those clients still need help and support that is more affordable than the average lawyer. It made me recognize that the need for affordable or free legal services is very great. I think this experience has furthered my resolve to do pro-bono work if at a firm, or to have tiered fees if working on my own.” – Law Student (2016)

“…I also have a much better understanding of what ‘access to justice’ means on the ground and the impact that legal aid cuts have had. I already valued pro bono work before coming to the clinic but my experience absolutely solidified how important I think pro bono work is.” – Law Student (2017)

National Volunteer Week 2017: Why I Volunteer

National Volunteer Week 2017: Why I Volunteer

In celebration of National Volunteer Week (April 23 – April 29, 2017), we spoke to an exceptional Rise volunteer, Nermin Karim, to discuss why she volunteers with Rise and how her work at the clinic helps improve women’s access to legal services.

Why I Volunteer With Rise: Volunteer Lawyer, Nermin Karim

Volunteer Lawyer, Nermin Karim

Q. What is your profession and the area of expertise you predominately practice in?

I am a family law lawyer and I practice mostly with women who can’t access justice because of poverty and with women who are facing abuse.

Q. How did the nature of your profession and your area of expertise influence your decision to get involved with Rise?

Rise is a wonderful addition to the services that are available to help women who are disadvantaged. I feel so privileged to be a part of the solution.

Q. What motivates you to continue to volunteer?

I believe inherently that we all come from the same soul. Once you believe that, it obliges you to help those in need.

Q. How long have you been involved with Rise? What is your volunteer role?

I began with Rise in January 2017, conducting summary advice appointments with women. Rise has such a long waitlist and my role is to help chip away at that list. Where appropriate, clients on the waitlist for service are offered the option of a summary advice appointment with a volunteer lawyer instead of going into the student program. This helps decrease the wait time for other women on the waitlist who are hoping to receive services from Rise.

Q. What skills and experience do you put to use in your volunteer position at Rise?

As well as being a family law lawyer, I’m trained as a Restorative Justice Practitioner. That training made me a more active listener, able to make space for my clients’ stories. Women who have experienced trauma need a cautious and sensitized ear.  

My work in the Downtown Eastside has exposed me to women facing financial crisis amongst other multiple barriers that impede their access to justice. I’ve learnt through that work to be aware of my own biases and keep them in check.  

I also know that no one comes to family law with a happy story. The women are sometimes quite fragile.

Q. What skills and experience do you think are of value for volunteer lawyers who are thinking of getting involved at Rise to have?

You have to be able to see things through a gendered lens and through a violence against women lens. Some of the women coming in don’t themselves realize that their experiences are not acceptable. One client’s partner locked up the family’s financial information so that she had no access. Another woman’s partner charged her for assault when she finally defended herself from his abuse. You tell them their rights and let them make an informed choice in their next steps.  

You also have to know that when you’re hearing about signs of ex-partners being financially controlling that’s just one level of abuse and there’s probably another level of abuse she’s not telling you.

Q. How does your experience volunteering at Rise differ from other volunteer positions you’ve held?

I love how well organized and efficient Rise is. I really appreciate all the support structures in place for me when I volunteer there. Sheila feeds me soup just about every time I go, and everyone there is amazing. I’m surrounded by rockstars! It’s the coolest thing. Because the support structures are there and it is so well organized I feel as though Rise maximizes the use of my time.

Q. How does the work Rise is doing differ from other community services and legal clinics in BC?

Rise is filling a gap which unfortunately should not rest on the shoulders of non-profits. This should have been a government funded resource but the huge funding cuts to legal aid have left a gaping hole and women are more disproportionately affected by that gap in services.

Rise has been a shining star in trying to fill that gap. While they don’t have all the resources they need, they are doing it and it’s awesome. It is a step to filling a huge need.

One of the large gaps is that person who doesn’t qualify for legal aid but can’t afford a lawyer.  And, there are so many people who fit into that category.

Q. What is one of the most rewarding parts about being involved with Rise?

Did I mention Sheila’s soup? It has built a community of mentors around me. When I’m in a situation and I’m stuck, I know I can reach out to Kim, Vandana or Raji and ask a question and they’ll help. There is just a ridiculous amount of knowledge in that place. I have people I can turn to and this is an amazing resource.

Thank you for your continued dedication and support Nermin! Rise also recognizes the hard work and hundreds of hours donated by all our volunteers during our first year open.

If you are interested in getting involved with Rise in a volunteer position, please visit our website for more details.

Where You Need a Will, There is a Way!

Where You Need a Will, There is a Way!

April 9th to 15th 2017 is ‘Make a Will Week’ in BC, which encourages residents to create a will or update their current one. Rise Women’s Legal Centre is making wills more accessible to women through our new wills clinic, made possible by funding from the Notary Foundation of BC.

A recent survey of 500 BC residents found that 56% of those with families do not have an updated will. But what exactly is a will, and why is it important to have a current one?

A will is a legal document that explains how you want your property and affairs (called your estate) managed after you die. If you have children, it will also contain instructions for their care.

With a will, you can make sure that your property and possessions are given to the people you choose, so that the special people in your life can avoid lengthy, expensive court processes and conflict over your estate. If you have a will, you should review it every few years to ensure that it remains accurate.

At Rise Women’s Legal Centre, we are fortunate this term to have lawyers and notaries volunteering their time to draft wills and other important end-of-life documents for women who would otherwise be unable to afford them.

Kim Hawkins, the Executive Director at Rise notes that wills can provide peace of mind for mothers with dependent children. “We’re thrilled to be able to expand our services by offering wills-drafting at Rise,” she commented.

“In her will, a single mother is able to name a guardian to take care of her children if she passes away unexpectedly,” says Monique Shebbeare, a Vancouver wills and estates lawyer currently volunteering at Rise. “She can also plan for her children’s financial security, and if she has not yet done so, estate planning gives her an opportunity to consider a life insurance policy that will benefit her children.”

Why then are many people without a will? Shebbeare explains that cost can be a barrier, as can misconceptions and a lack of information.

“Some people may believe that only the elderly or wealthy need to think about making a will,” says Shebbeare, “but wills are actually useful for parents of all ages and backgrounds. If there’s an important change in someone’s life, such as getting married, separated or divorced, having a child, or moving out of province, it’s a good time to revisit your will.”

Women who are interested in the wills clinic can call or email Rise.

Opinion: We All Must “Be Bold For Change”

Opinion: We All Must “Be Bold For Change”

Executive Director of Rise Women’s Legal Centre, Kim Hawkins discusses access to justice as an issue of women’s equality in the Vancouver Sun online for International Women’s Day 2017. See the full article below, or visit the Vancouver Sun online.

“Be Bold for Change” is the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day and the message could not be more timely.

Since the early 1900s, International Women’s Day has celebrated women’s achievements while calling for gender equality. While we see examples everywhere of women successfully contributing in business and politics, organizing, marching, and writing, there remain many challenges to the achievement of substantive equality. One such challenge is access to justice.

Rise Women’s Legal Centre is a new legal clinic that provides free and low cost legal services to low-income, self-identified women. Our services, which mainly address family law problems, are delivered by upper year students from the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law, in collaboration with staff lawyer supervisors. As the executive director of Rise, the question that I am asked more than any other is why we have a legal clinic that provides services exclusively to women.

In short, we provide legal services to women because access to family law services is a women’s equality issue. Since 2002, many people in British Columbia needing legal assistance have been denied adequate representation because of staggering cuts to legal aid. While men and women have been negatively impacted by the cuts, which saw the legal aid budget reduced by 40 per cent over three years, it was some of the services that were most accessed by women, such as family law and poverty law, that were cut the deepest. Despite some small pilot projects funded by the provincial government in recent years, B.C.’s spending on legal aid remains the third lowest per capita in Canada.

Today legal aid representation in family law cases is only available where there is actual or threatened family violence, or to resolve the serious denial of access to children – even for people whose low income would otherwise make them eligible for assistance. The Canadian Bar Association B.C. Branch, in its recently published Agenda for Justice, has stated that B.C.’s justice system requires attention now to avert a growing crisis, and called for adequate funding for family law services which were eliminated in 2002, including issues of divorce, child access and custody, financial support and asset division. They noted that 71 per cent of people who would financially qualify for such services are women.

The effects of marital breakdown on women can be severe. Data analyzed by the University of Toronto in 2008 demonstrated that women’s median income in the years following their separation dropped significantly more than men’s, and did not recover, even after four years. Research shows that women still earn less than men in the paid labour force, are disproportionately responsible for child and elder care within families, and are disproportionately the victims of family violence. All of these issues have been exacerbated by cuts to other social services that supported women including women’s centres, the Human Rights Commission, and welfare. The result is that women are less likely to be able to afford a lawyer than men, another reason that cuts to family law legal aid impact women more severely.

And although the non-profit community in British Columbia has stepped up to provide a network of transition homes, anti-violence organizations and advocates who can provide legal information, these programs usually cannot provide legal advice or representation. Legal information is not the same as legal advocacy and representation, and access to pamphlets and online tools, as important as it is, cannot stand in for the advice and support of a trained legal professional. Leaving aside literacy, language barriers, and access to safe and accessible Internet, legal problems are lonely, complex and difficult, and unmet legal needs can lead to broader social problems.

For all of these reasons, Rise Women’s Legal Centre was created to serve women as an important step toward women’s equality in B.C.

Being bold can look like a political march, but it can also look like a woman seeking a protection order for herself and her child, a law student who pushes past their fear to bring a court application for the first time, and people everywhere working within their individual sectors to inch us incrementally towards gender parity. Ultimately, we must all Be Bold for Change wherever it is needed.

It’s World Social Justice Day!

It’s World Social Justice Day!

It may be World Social Justice Day today, 20 February 2017, but social justice concerns have been in the global spotlight throughout these first weeks of 2017, as activists have rallied online and on the main streets of major cities. Women are playing a prominent role in speaking out against injustice at home and abroad.

In our own province of British Columbia the inability of citizens to access their rights through the justice system is one of the most pressing concerns for the social justice community. Last week, the Canadian Bar Association released an Agenda for Justice, which proposed a series of reforms and recommendations aimed at improving access to justice for all British Columbians. One of the report’s key recommendations is to increase funding for family law services to ensure all citizens who qualify financially should be able to receive legal aid.

As an organization providing front-line service to clients, Rise staff and students are reminded on a daily basis of how difficult it can be for people to navigate the court system on their own, and of the importance of face-to-face legal services delivered by knowledgeable legal professionals. We see first hand the desperation experienced by women who cannot get the help they need in order to successfully navigate the legal system and hope to do our part to address the gap in legal services.

As Rise enters our third term, we honour those around the world who are marching, speaking, and fighting for social justice, and remain committed to delivering access to justice one woman at a time.

A Rise Student Reflects: From Classroom to Clinic

A Rise Student Reflects: From Classroom to Clinic

Written by a Rise student, this thoughtful reflection details the student clinician’s increased understanding of family law and their experiences transitioning from the classroom to working in the clinic at Rise. This reflection appeared in Issue 151, on Diversity in Verdict magazine, published by the Trial Lawyers Association of BC in the Winter 2017 edition.

From Classroom to Clinic – By: Arash Ehteshami

In my first weeks at Rise Women’s Legal Centre, I quickly came to realize that my knowledge around family law legislation and case law did not help me in the slightest when trying to understand the complex mechanics of actually navigating the court process. Even the simplest task, like initiating proceedings in either Provincial or Supreme Court, became mind-numbingly difficult to grasp, despite ready access to CLE materials and bountiful online resources. I may have been shell-shocked being thrown into a clinic environment, but nonetheless, it has made me appreciate the barriers many people face when trying to access our courts. And this is coming from someone that has had the privilege of attending law school for the past couple of years.

There is a very real difference, I find, between reading about divorce and family violence in a textbook and having a client share their first-hand experience about the same topic, face-to-face. No matter how explicitly a textbook (or even a judgment) tries to frame a client’s experience, it still lacks the ‘human’ element that makes working at Rise so different from being in the classroom. I don’t remember a single time in law school where a client was described to have suddenly broken out in tears, trying to recall years of abuse suffered at the hand of a former partner. Instead, family law is systematically decontextualized in the classroom into isolated issues, where emotion is superfluous and takes a back-seat to the ‘real’ issues at hand.

The change from the classroom to the real world has further been quite drastic for me: facts that were previously handed out on a silver platter now require careful questioning of clients, and issues that were blatantly obvious to spot in fact-patterns have now become an exercise in balancing priorities, from most-to least-urgent. While I’m unsure to what extent the PLTC module on family law can bridge the gap between the classroom and working with clients, I know that once the metaphorical rubber hit the figurative road, being able to read pleadings quickly and getting a handle on a client’s case took precedence over knowing what exact paragraph the test for relocation was set out in Gordon v Goertz. It’s amazing to look back on the last two months at Rise and realize just how far my understanding of family law has come.

Overall, I find myself very fortunate to be able to complement my studies with the practical know-how offered at Rise. Not only will I graduate with tangible, real-life experience in dealing with clients, I also get the opportunity to take family law for a spin and see if it truly is a field that I want to commit my time and energy to, once I graduate.

Moreover, it is incredible just how much positive work we can do for clients that literally have nowhere else to turn for their family and child protection matters. Sometimes, even giving the client an hour of time to listen to her legal problem, without making her pay out of her ears can help in easing, even if only temporarily the crushing emotional and psychological stress that she may have lived with for years. It is both inspiring and humbling.

A Rise Student Reflects: Women Need Better Access to Justice

Written by a Rise student, this powerful reflection evokes striking imagery, detailing the student clinician’s experiences working at Rise this past semester. This reflection appeared in Issue 151, on Diversity in Verdict magazine, published by the Trial Lawyers Association of BC in the Winter 2017 edition.

Women Need Better Access to Justice – By: Sarah Khan

“Think of the clinic as a wartime hospital.” The warning from our supervising lawyers, Kim Hawkins and Vandana Sood, came with the appropriate caveat that they did not intend to downplay the realities of actual wartime hospitals. Rather, they were trying to prepare us for what we’d experience over the next semester while working at the clinic. It was orientation week at Rise Women’s Legal Centre, and myself and the four other student clinicians, received their advice with some skepticism. This was a legal clinic developed to address family law matters; we were hardly in the trenches. A few weeks later, I’d find myself on the phone with a consulting lawyer who’d say, “You know, those clients of yours. They walk in needing legal representation, and actually, they needed it eleven years ago.”

I wish these representations were a stretch. I wish that our clients, had other options, that they weren’t pinning their final hopes on Rise. Mostly, I wish that their cases weren’t hemorrhaging legal problems. 

Perhaps it’s indicative of the sanitized law school classrooms I’ve recently emerged from, but I thought the clinical law experience would involve solutions to problems that were in their infancy. A client walks through the door, concerned about what to do now that she’s separated. I run through the basics of child support, property division. We draw up a separation agreement. Persuaded by its sheer reasonableness, the ex-partner eagerly signs the agreement, having already obtained independent legal advice.

Instead, a client walks through the door, and she can’t even begin to tell her story. I try to coax out the details: Are you safe? Are your children safe? Sometimes she will say yes when her answer is no. Sometimes there are no children— there never were— but she’s separated, unable to work due to health complications, and her ex has dissipated all their family property. Sometimes she will tell me about the eleven years she’s spent in negotiations, then in court, fighting for parenting time. Sometimes she’ll say that her ex-partner loves their children, that her ex-partner is a good parent. This is important to her. I listen. I make note of safety concerns. There are always safety concerns. I collect the pieces of her story and I wonder at how one person can have survived all this.

As a student clinician, I see three new clients per week for an intake interview. With five of us this semester, that’s a total of 15 intakes weekly, 60 in a month. And by next semester, the clinic will be up to six students, and 72 new clients per month. Of course, we don’t have anywhere close to the capacity— in funding, in people power, in supports— to provide each client with full legal representation. The intake interview becomes a process of determining how dire the client’s situation is: a necessary form of triage. We screen for urgent issues, or discrete matters we can help with. When we have the capacity to step in and provide full legal representation, we do so. We are careful to refer clients to advocates in the community for general support.

Very occasionally, we get the tidy legal issues— a client comes in and just wants guidance in creating a legally binding separation agreement. We talk her through the legal issues, we show her how to do it. She’s the sort of client who’s getting the help she needs, when she needs it. If we do our job right, she won’t have to endure the expense and pain of dragging her most personal relationships through the legal system. She will never need to resort to a wartime hospital to stop the bleeding, stabilize her heartbeat. She’ll be okay.

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