NLS is applying for an ABS licence in the hopes of giving its students valuable, practical experience while meeting the legal needs of the community, write Jenny Holloway and Nick Johnson
One of our core values at Nottingham Law School (NLS) is a commitment to providing students with skills that will enable them to excel in the professions they progress to after graduation. We see pro bono work as an integral part of the legal advice service, providing access to justice for the community and meeting an otherwise unmet legal need. As a university, community engagement is very important to the work we do.
We are one of the largest law schools in the UK offering the full range of courses: undergraduate and master's degrees (including the legal practice course and bar professional training course) and a range of practitioner courses. Law is a fascinating subject to study, as well as being intellectually rigorous and highly valued by a wide range of employers. The challenge for law schools is ensuring academic rigour while also providing a practical skills base that will enable graduates to succeed in a highly competitive employment market.
Our Legal Advice Centre offers students vital opportunities to engage with real life cases in a professional environment and undertake community outreach work, community and public legal education, miscarriage of justice cases, and overseas volunteering projects and placements.
It provides an ideal opportunity for students to get practical experience in a formal law firm environment, but as part of their studies, which means they have more time to reflect on the work they do and how to improve it. Students are able to both contextualise their learning, by seeing how the law actually operates and affects people, and have the space to reflect on what they have done. The work raises issues relating to access to justice, but it does so in the environment of a professional legal practice.
Students work in the centre either as part of their studies or as extra-curricular work. They are supervised by the centre's two full-time solicitors, as well as having support from other academics and practitioners. This year the centre will deal with more than 180 cases, with over 200 students being involved.
Separate legal entity
For the next stage of the centre's development, the university, Nottingham Trent, has applied to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) for a licence for the centre to operate as an alternative business structure (ABS).
ABSs were established by the Legal Services Act 2007 and allow non-lawyers to own and invest in legal practices. The centre would become a separate legal entity capable of providing a wider range of legal and other services. Currently, we are legally able to carry on what is known as reserved legal activity and to do this pro bono, but provisions in the 2007 Act make it uncertain whether or not university law clinics will be able to offer the full range of services in future. The application for an ABS licence will protect the work we already do and open up new possibilities.
As an ABS, we believe the centre will be able to create a flexible legal education platform capable of offering students the best academic and employment opportunities. If authorised by the SRA, the ABS licence would enable us to offer students the opportunity to work in a fully regulated organisation as an integral part of their studies within the law school - as close as they could get to replicating the experience of working in a law firm.
Becoming an ABS would also allow us to expand into new areas, such as developing a business/entrepreneurial and intellectual property law service within the centre. This would be an exciting venture meeting a need among start-ups and social enterprises for essential legal advice from the outset, something which they can often view as unaffordable. We could charge fixed fees below the market rate to give those businesses a sound legal start, with them progressing to being advised by local law firms as they grew.
Our motivation in developing the centre in this way is not to generate profit but to enrich our student and community offering. Any money generated will be ploughed back into further developing the centre's services.
Operating as an ABS will allow us to expand and further develop the excellent work our students already do, while giving students at all levels in the law school experience of a wide range of legal professional practice, similar to the experience medical students gain at teaching hospitals. We hope this will also inspire NLS students to engage in community activity for public good, enable them to understand issues relating to access to justice, and prepare them to excel in their chosen professions.
Jenny Holloway is associate dean of Nottingham Law School and Nick Johnson is director of the NLS Legal Advice Centre