Thursday, August 20, 2020

Emma Sokoloff-Rubin: Strategies for Remote Clinical Supervision

Strategies for remote clinical supervision

A post by Emma Sokoloff-Rubin

Director of the San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project and Lecturer in Law

Yale Law School


When Yale Law School, like schools across the country, sent students and faculty home virtually overnight, I worried about a lot of things. I worried about my students. I worried about people I loved getting sick, getting lonely, getting lost in so much change. I worried about ever getting any work done with my toddler underfoot. But I didn’t worry about the clinic I help run weathering the sudden change. I knew that the clinic would continue to work well with a remote supervision model, because we’ve been running it that way all along.

The San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project—SFALP for short—is by design a cross-country partnership. The clinic and its students are based in New Haven, and we partner with the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office. Because of the distance, we have found creative ways for students to build relationships with their supervisors, produce strong work product, and receive meaningful feedback with phone, video, and email as the primary means of communication.

Of course, the sudden shift to online teaching this spring changed things for us, too. We missed our in-person clinic seminar and social gatherings. While students have always worked remotely with the attorneys who supervise their legal work, they’re used to having mentors on campus as well. It takes a lot of effort from instructors and students alike to create via Zoom the kind of magic that happens in a classroom, and our clinic seminar is no exception. Like everyone else, we’re trying to face the sadness we feel about what we don’t get to do while also being creative about what we can. But we’re lucky, in a way, because we’ve been working all along with some of the limitations many clinics are facing for the first time.

Some background on our clinic: SFALP pairs students with lawyers from the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office to conceive, develop, and litigate cutting-edge public interest cases. The students work directly with deputy city attorneys through every stage of the process, from dreaming up new lawsuits to filing complaints, from motions practice to appeals. The clinic’s assignments are wide-ranging and fast-paced, and the attorneys rely on the students to produce top-notch work. The program has become a model for other city attorneys’ offices and law schools, with many of SFALP’s cases making national news.

I spent two years in SFALP as a student, and now I help run the clinic alongside Dean Heather Gerken, who founded it fourteen years ago. So I bring the perspective of both student and teacher, and I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t from both sides. I also get to build on the hard work of the thirteen clinical fellows who came before me and developed many of the strategies I describe here.

The main thing I’ve learned is that clarity surrounding expectations for students and supervisors matters more than ever when you’re operating remotely. Clear policies and expectations free students and supervisors alike to focus their energy on the substance of the collaboration – the relationships and the cases. In short, a well-organized clinic allows us to focus on the work. It also means that when things aren’t working, when the phone conversations are awkward or the memo misses the mark, we have a clear sense of what we have been doing and can better pinpoint areas that need change.

Of course, what works for us won’t work for all clinics. Because we’re essentially working with in-house counsel—the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, tasked with representing the city and county of San Francisco—we don’t need to navigate remote client interactions to the degree that many direct services clinics do. Likewise, we don’t face the unique responsibilities and tight deadlines that come with being an individual client’s only attorney. But like any clinic, and like many externship and internship programs, we aim to teach through practice and also produce meaningful work. Strong relationships between students and supervisors are at the heart of what makes that possible. Here are some of the structures and policies that have worked well for us when students and supervisors can’t be in the same room:

Working group calls are sacred: Each semester, students are divided based on their interests into working groups, with each group focusing on one case or issue area. One group is always devoted to developing new case ideas. There are usually two to four students in a group, with two supervising deputy city attorneys. Most groups have an hour-long call every other week, and the group decides whether to use phone or video. Whenever possible, the calls are scheduled far in advance. This time is precious, and barring emergencies, students and attorneys are expected to attend each one. Attorneys make a real effort to get to know students during that time because it’s all they have.

- Clarify assignments in writing: After each call, students send a follow-up email within 24 hours summarizing their assignment to make sure everyone is on the same page. This allows supervisors to intervene early if the summary doesn’t reflect what they had in mind. Sometimes what the student heard is different from what the supervisor said, but just as often, students’ efforts to summarize their understanding of the assignment help supervisors clarify for themselves and for the students what they had in mind. The back-and-forth might clarify, for example, whether the supervisors envisioned a persuasive memo or a more neutral analysis of a potential claim; if they wanted a formal memo or a bullet-point list of key findings; if they’re interested in persuasive authority or just looking for binding precedent on a particular issue.

We also encourage students to call and email their supervisors with questions as they work, rather than waiting until the next working group call. It usually takes some prodding to get students to let go of concerns about bothering their supervisors and realize that the attorneys like hearing from them in between calls, and that asking questions allows the students to produce better work. We enlist returning students to emphasize that the supervisors really want to hear from students. In my experience, what usually works best is simply picking up the phone and calling a supervisor when a question arises. If that doesn’t work, the next step is to send an email and arrange a time to talk.

- Mentorship requires intention: We select supervisors who are invested in getting to know the students and mentor them, who are drawn to that and recognize it as part of what they are giving in exchange for having students collectively spend thousands of hours per semester helping to litigate and develop cases. Crucially, the supervising attorneys have the support of their supervisors, who recognize the time spent mentoring students as an essential part of the office’s work.

Until Covid hit, most students met their supervisors in person at least once over the course of their time in the clinic when we brought deputy city attorneys to campus to co-teach a class. (We ask new students to commit to two semesters in the clinic; some stay for as many as five.) We also asked the attorneys to hold one-on-one office hours on the day of their class, so as to deepen mentoring relationships with the students. We’re still figuring out how well the office hours system translates for remote guests.

We also do everything we can to communicate that mentoring between students is at the heart of the clinic’s work. At the start of the semester, we pair new clinic students with returning students for one-on-one coffee or Zoom conversations. When clinic application season rolls around, we encourage prospective students to reach out to students already in the clinic to learn more about the workload and clinic structure. And students in their third or fourth semester in the clinic often volunteer to share specific expertise with newer students, such as strategies for attacking thorny questions around standing when proposing new case ideas. We recognize the time students spend on these conversations as an essential contribution to the clinic and take care to highlight this mentoring work in our syllabus, in information sessions for prospective clinic applicants, and during clinic meetings.

This approach has a practical effect—busy students are more likely to make time for mentoring when they feel that the clinic values it—and also communicates an important lesson about law practice: building relationships and talking about cases and ideas counts as work and is part of what we are doing together. It’s all part of lawyering and learning.

- Clear structure for feedback: In most cases, students are required to submit memos 48 hours in advance of their working group call to allow supervisors time to read their memos thoroughly before the call. This fall, we plan to ask students to read their teammates’ work during the 48-hour period between memo deadline and working group call. Many students have already been doing this, but we realized we hadn’t yet concretized the practice as a policy. This is how a lot of our policies evolve, from an informal practice that we don’t want to lose as one generation of students graduates and the next gets to work.

In addition to oral feedback during working group calls, supervising attorneys automatically redline one of the first two assignments that students complete for a working group. Supervising attorneys will decide which assignment to redline unless students reach out with a preference. The redlines get emailed directly (and only) to the individual student. We call this the “quick edit,” designed to bolster the substantive feedback that attorneys regularly give students and provide an opportunity for students to remedy relevant legal writing or research issues early in the semester. Then there’s the “deep edit,” a more in-depth edit that students initiate by reaching out to a supervisor. The supervisor provides written feedback on one piece of work product, often including suggestions for further student research and written work, and schedules a one-on-one call with the student to discuss the edits.


I don’t mean to paint an overly rosy picture of remote supervision or suggest that we have it all figured out. Until the pandemic hit, Heather, the students, and I were together in New Haven and saw a lot of each other on a regular basis. Even this past spring, we had a couple of months of normalcy before the world seemed to change overnight. We worked with our student directors to host happy hours, organize small group conversations, and encourage informal collaboration and conversation in the clinic workroom. We hosted a community dinner at the start of the semester. This fall will be our first time  starting off the semester without our usual community touchstones. We’re hoping to teach parts of the clinic seminar in person, but some students will opt to participate remotely for personal and public-health reasons. Instead of crowding around a single table in a small seminar room, we’ll be spaced 6+ feet apart in a room that usually seats 150 students. We’ll be masked, and probably nervous. It’s all so new.

We’re also still trying to figure out what kinds of social gatherings will work over Zoom and what will feel stilted and exhausting. We know it doesn’t work simply to move our typical in-person events online. But we also don’t want to skip them entirely. In April, I decided to skip our usual end-of-semester celebration rather than face trying to replicate it over Zoom. In retrospect, that was a mistake. The semester petered out without any sense of closure or celebration, and our 3Ls graduated without any clinic-specific farewell. I think we can do better this fall. We want to try more brown-bag lunch style chats with alumni, since Zoom makes it easy to bring in guests. Heather may teach an optional cooking class for the wannabe chefs among us. My toddler and her ukulele will probably make an appearance on screen. We’re looking around to see what others are doing to build community and what’s working for them. We’re enlisting students to help us figure out what online events are meaningful, and to find the sweet spot between too few events and too many.

None of this makes up for the pre-pandemic world we all wish we lived in. We’re all worried sick about so many things. But I think we’ll figure out together how to build community without our usual tools. If anything, the pandemic has heightened the desire we share with our students to use law to protect vulnerable consumers, promote civil rights, and create lasting change.

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