Thursday, April 16, 2020

Assessing Virtual Clinical Practice: an Exercise

I taught our Veterans Legal Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law in the spring semester 2020. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were compelled to transform the clinic into a virtual law practice in mid-March. The transition was relatively smooth; this post does not address how we did it. I am sure others have found great solutions to this puzzle.

Instead, I recognized that students in this course had practiced live for a little over half of the semester and remotely for the rest of the time. So I decided to elicit feedback and prompt reflection about the experience by running the following exercise. By way of context, students in this clinic work in teams of two and work on roughly 5-8 cases in the semester, including long term cases and quick advice. The practice itself is primarily an administrative law practice, with relatively infrequent and already mostly videoconferenced hearings.

I describe the exercise first, the summarize the student's feedback.


1) Pre-assign students to breakout rooms in Zoom. For this class, I divided 11 students into 4 groups, making sure that students were not in the same group as their clinic teammate. I wanted to encourage cross-team sharing of experiences.

2) Assign the task:

            -- Discuss the experience of virtual practice.

            -- Ask what it would be like to remain a virtual practice, even after we regain access to our physical space.

            -- Identify and come ready to report back:

                        1) at least one benefit or gain from virtual practice.

                        2) at least one cost or loss from virtual practice.  

                        3) one lesson that might affect your future life as a lawyer.

3) Break into breakout rooms.

4) Bring back and ask for reports:

            -- I chose to go question by question, with all groups reporting on one question before moving to the next

            -- I typed notes in a document as each group reported, pre-formatted into columns for each question.

            -- After all reports, I shared those notes using Zoom’s share screen feature

            -- and asked students to reread and consider whether they had additional thoughts.


Here is the list that resulted with this group on this occasion. This is not especially organized and includes only light editing for clarity.  

Benefits / Gains:

            -- for a permanently online practice: lower costs and lower rent, although we’d still need a room with a copier/scanner and a way to deal with the still unavoidable, old school physical mail.

            -- increased efficiency, assuming effective use of the available cloud-based tools (such as Google Drive, Slack, CLIO).

            -- easier remote access, especially for us in a state-wide practice focusing on rural areas for some clients (but see losses below.)

            -- greater flexibility in scheduling within the clinic, including team meetings and class sessions.

            -- greater flexibility for student advocates (and lawyers) in deciding when to do work.

            -- in preparing clients/witnesses for videoconferenced hearings, a more accurate role-play of the videoconference experience.

            -- especially now, in this unexpected situation, the chance to see people’s private spaces and, to some extent, to see how they act in their private space. One student noted they preferred lying down during Zoom calls. Another self-identified as regularly chewing on some food when they logged into a meeting.

Costs / Losses:

            -- decreased efficiency on shared small-scale tasks, when compared to “I’ll just pop into X’s office to ask this question.” In some situations, immediate live interaction is the most efficient way to move a task forward.

            -- decreased access for clients: who do not have reliable internet and related equipment; who have limited minutes on a prepaid phone; or who for other reasons find it difficult to use computers or to share with strangers over the phone.

            -- decreased efficiency in responding to incoming calls. We have been using a Google Voice number to mask students’ home phones. After leaving voice mail, clients would often call back immediately; but our protocol required our administrator to offload messages and send them to the right person, resulting in delay.

            -- less sensory information about clients and witnesses during meetings and interviews and so: 

                    -- a) fewer or at least different non-verbal cues that might prompt different lines of questioning;

                    -- b) a decreased ability to read body language and tells, affecting assessments of credibility;

                    -- c) a slightly more impersonal feel.

            -- especially for text and email, the risk of miscommunicating tone and attitude, resulting in the need to be more thoughtful and intentional about these ways of connecting. On this point, see this Key and Peele video, which one student sent me after class.

            -- partly because of the risks of impersonality and miscommunication, an increased need for reflective listening and for intentionally conveying compassion, empathy, and the sense that you have ‘heard’ the client.

            -- the distraction of having a screen in front of you at all times during interpersonal interactions, for those of us who are distracted by things on a screen.

            -- the almost complete loss of casual group interaction that usually occurs in the clinic workspace, resulting in less informal sharing of ideas, brainstorming, and (especially) off-topic conversation.

            -- the need for greater discipline, or at least a different set of habits, for those who have difficulty working at “home,” with all its powerful distractions, pleasures, and responsibilities.

            -- a need for greater discipline in documenting work activities, especially for team-based work.

Lessons Learned:

            -- a new or revived appreciation for how large a percentage of law practice can in fact occur remotely.

            -- despite that, resistance to losing the opportunity for full interpersonal contact with colleagues, clients, and others.

            -- a sense that a hybrid approach might work best, combining live contact with remote work.

            -- a specific recommendation that the clinic move to a hybrid model. For example, requiring a minimum number of hours live but allowing for additional hours to be worked remotely.

            -- an assumption that advance scheduling of shared work times still has value, so as to ensure that the someone at the other end of a text or chat or email will see and respond in something close to real time. (See “I’ll just pop into X’s office” above.)

            -- a starting appreciation for the way in which remote practice can alter efforts to integrate work with other life commitments, resulting in a different set of challenges to maintaining well-being overall.

            -- a worry about how to set and maintain boundaries between work and home, if you have them or want them.

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