Community Clinic Goes Virtual

Kiera Stel is a second-year law student and
a student clinician with the ICLC.

Like so many downtown storefronts, boards have gone up over the office windows of 148 Alexander St., the home of Allard Law’s Indigenous Community Legal Clinic (ICLC). But the ICLC’s much needed services are far from shut down.

Located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the ICLC provides free legal services to the Indigenous community throughout the province, helping clients with needs in a wide variety of legal areas including criminal law, family law, civil rights law, labour and employment law, and aboriginal law. It also provides students with an invaluable opportunity to learn critical lawyering skills in a supervised setting, complementing their classroom studies.

Kiera Stel is a second-year law student and a student clinician with the ICLC. The sudden closure of their office meant that Kiera and the rest of the team had to act fast to find ways to continue their operations online.  

Kiera recently took some time out to answer a few questions about what this experience has been like for her and what the ICLC looks like today.

Given the current reality created by physical distancing measures, how is the ICLC continuing to serve the needs of the community?
As the situation evolved quickly in mid-March, each clinician spent time scanning their individual files to an online platform. This was a lot of work as there is a cumulative 150 or so open files at the clinic right now. The clinic quickly and collaboratively developed new and flexible policies for record keeping and tracking our work. We also had to find ways to connect with our clients, whether that be over the phone, email, or Zoom, and streamline our online connections with other students, legal advocates, and the supervising lawyers. I think that when the ICLC resumes in-person operations, the online systems we’ve created will help us improve our services for our clients. 

Why is it important for the ICLC to continue operations?
Even though some governmental bodies have shut or slowed down during the pandemic (such as some of the court systems) there is still a lot of work that can be done for our clients. The community that we are serving has so many varied legal needs that it is absolutely still possible to make progress on all types of files despite the extraordinary circumstances. I have several files on which I was actually able to achieve more for the client in the past few weeks than I may have been able to do if we were still operating as normal, as I was able to dedicate more time to the research. 

In relation to the clients, cutting off our working relationships with them would have gone against all of the trauma-informed legal practice techniques that we learned about earlier this semester. We received a significant amount of training at the beginning of the semester about how to work with clients who have experienced trauma of all types, as this is the common experience of those we serve at the clinic. The idea of trauma informed lawyering is that you focus on the needs of the client, listening well, serving them respectfully, and overall, having compassion. Relationship and trust building are central at the clinic. I have learned so much more about treating people empathetically in a professional setting this semester, as a result. 

For me personally, the ICLC has really fundamentally changed my worldview, and it has been a very emotional journey. I think if the ICLC had ceased operations, it would have been very jarring overall for my own sense of wellbeing to not have a natural end to the relationships and work into which I have been investing so much energy all semester. 
What have been some of the major challenges with working remotely? And how have these been overcome?
One of the biggest challenges has been not being able to work with my peers on a day-to-day basis. We have an open concept office, so all semester I was in the same room as nine other students and one practicum student. It was a great experience to be able to be in the same space together. As I began the transition to online work, the biggest struggle for me was feeling isolated from my peers. As a result, I rely on the supervising lawyers a lot more in some ways than I did when we were operating as normal.

The supervising lawyers have really helped us to still feel like a community. We’ve maintained the same schedule as normal operations, which has been helpful in terms of having a sense of continuity. We still have file review on Fridays over Zoom, as well as a Zoom call version of our weekly Thursday seminar. We also added two daily “coffee break” check-ins to our schedule. Any of the students, legal advocates, and supervising lawyers who are free drop into one of the two daily zoom calls. It’s a great way of feeling less alone and gives a chance to ask questions and access the group “hive-mind” when trying to solve a legal issue for a client. 

What has been your greatest learning from this experience?
Throughout the entire semester, I have been continually impressed with the other law students at the ICLC. Even in quarantine, I learn something from them every day of this experience - it’s just through the group chat or a Zoom call rather than in person. We’ve also been able to continue our seminar work over Zoom, and several of my peers facilitated three-hour sessions on the new platform in a way that felt very similar to in person meetings. All the students have been so quick to adapt to this new normal and it has been impressive. I feel so grateful that I have been able to go through this experience with these remarkable individuals at my virtual “side” throughout the end of what has been a stressful semester. 

I have also learned so much about leadership by being witness to the work of our supervising lawyers, Patricia Barkaskas, Mark Gervin, and Chris Heslinga as well as our legal advocates, Gloria Cardinal and Dallas Tooshkenig. Their leadership has been outstanding. Everyone has been very supportive and understanding of the situation, and they have helped me to understand what kind of lawyer and mentor I want to be when I enter the profession. 

Overall, I feel lucky to have been able to serve the Downtown Eastside with a group of such amazing individuals this past month.