In my penultimate year at law school I decided not to apply for a clerkship and instead enrolled myself into the summer clinical unit of Professional Practice at the Springvale Monash Legal Service. As I reflect and compare my experiences to that of my clerk friends, I can unequivocally say that clinical legal education was well worth the opportunity cost.
The deficiencies of law school education started to surface within my first week of client interviews. Whilst my lecturers had taught me the substantive and procedural content of the law, I was not taught how to manage the explosion of emotions inextricably linked with clients who came into contact with the justice system. I quickly realised that effective lawyering required more than knowledge of the elements to assault and promissory estoppel, but in fact required a high standard of interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence.
Research suggests that a lack of emotional intelligence is endemic within the Australian legal profession, and this is a principal consideration as to why a third of Australian lawyers suffer from depression and anxiety. Indeed, new lawyers are expected to have deep level dealings with clients who have a multitude of distressing problems without receiving any training in interpersonal skills. Clinical legal education fills this void by equipping students with emotional skills such as empathic communication, and reflective practice so that ‘the more open we are to our own emotions, the more skilled we will be in reading feelings of others’.
By far the most perplexing realisation was the paradox that whilst law school had trained me to think like a lawyer, the profession actually demanded that I think outside the legal mindset. Working at a community legal centre taught me that client legal issues are often the effect of greater underlying non-legal causes, and by failing to address these underlying causes, legal issues continue to surface. I learnt to appreciate that when a client entered the interview room, I was presented with the opportunity of holistic intervention and I was encouraged to take the extra step of facilitating appointments with other crucial services.
Any law student who believes that a clerkship alone is sufficient practical training is missing out on an invaluable learning opportunity. Clinical legal education at a community legal centre will not only teach you the practicalities of lawyering, but more importantly, will challenge your core values, emotions, and motivations to create a grounded and stronger professional self.
 James ‘Seeing Things As We Are. Emotional Intelligence and Clinical Legal Education’ (2005) 8 IJCLE 124; Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (1995) 96.