Ask the Experts: Interview with an SLA Caseworker
By Glenn McAleer
This month I had the chance to talk with Dylan Sigurdson, a UCalgary (soon to be) 3L with 35+ files under his belt with Student Legal Assistance (SLA), the on-campus law clinic staffed by UCalgary law students. Dylan, under the guidance of advising lawyers, provides free representation and legal assistance to UCalgary undergraduate students and local Calgary residents. Dylan volunteers with SLA during the school year, and now for a second summer, works as a law student caseworker. He has become somewhat of an expert on the student side of the organization.
How did you first hear about SLA?
I first heard about SLA before I even applied to UCalgary – it was one of the reasons I decided to attend UCalgary. My family has had difficulties with rental agreements in the past, and they would have benefited from representation at the time. Being able to help people in similar situations was a big positive for me.
I became involved in SLA in 1L, and I really enjoyed the work. I knew I wanted to work as a summer caseworker for SLA. I am now on my second summer with SLA.
Do you notice a difference in the work you do over the school year versus as a summer student for SLA?
Its basically a continuation of the work I do during the semester. That said, the volume increases quite a bit over the summer months, as well as the complexity. Summer students are more likely to receive some more complex cases, including trials, as they have more time and experience to deal with them. The actual work itself is comparable to that provided to clients during the academic term.
What kinds of files can students expect to work on through SLA?
In terms of our scope, we deal with several areas. With criminal matters, we deal with a wide variety of summary criminal charges, where the accused has appearances in the Alberta Court of Justice. We’re able to deal with various criminal charges that do not carry the potential of jail time. We handle a lot of assaults, mischief, criminal harassment, and some assaults with a weapon. SLA also takes on clients with traffic tickets.
On the civil side, we deal with small contractual disputes, family law matters (parenting and child support), and residential tenancies disputes, such as attempted eviction without completing proper procedures, raising rent without taking the proper procedures, and landlords attempting to withhold security deposits. SLA also deals with bankruptcy discharges. Often when a person has entered bankruptcy, they don’t become automatically discharged because they’re missing forms, and we try to help them get discharged afterwards.
What are some of the skills you think you’ve developed through working with SLA?
The first skill I noticed developing was my public speaking. Lawyers have word choices that are a little different than normal parlance. With SLA, you get to do court docket appearances for your clients in criminal matters. In most courtrooms, seniority dictates who makes submissions first. The lawyers go first, which gives SLA students an opportunity to see and hear how lawyers address the Justice and the crown prosecutor. You quickly learn how lawyers communicate with each other.
In terms of practical skills, SLA students can expect to learn client-management skills, such as managing client expectations. A lot of people tell us that at the outset of their matter in the legal system that they want to tell their story to the judge. We explain to them the process they will face, and that typically you don’t explain your whole story to the judge at a first appearance or docket appearance. There are mechanisms and processes to follow where the client can get to that point. SLA caseworkers get really good at setting expectations and laying out what options are available to clients. In addition to client-management skills, SLA also gives students experience in other practical matters, like updating a file management system and ensuring time logs are entered.
As a student with SLA, how much contact do you have with clients directly?
There’s plenty of contact, and it’s mostly one on one. Caseworkers do the initial intake interview where we collect the basic information that we need – contact information, identify verification, stuff like that. Then, we get into the legal issue. They explain their legal issue or what they’re charged with. At that point, we communicate that to an advising lawyer. Same with client calls – if a file is opened, it’s your file at that point. The SLA student is the liaison between the organization and the client, and the student is having most of the conversations that take place with the client. One of the big limitations we have as students is that we cannot provide legal advice, but we can provide options. A lot of the job is distilling the options and providing them to the client, who makes the ultimate choice regarding their legal issue.
What kind of mentorship have you received whilst working with SLA?
My experience with SLA has been great in that regard. SLA has articling students who are a great resource, and they’re always open to answer any questions students may have. As well, the SLA administrative staff is amazing in supporting the caseworkers. With the advising lawyer consultation, caseworkers are provided a weekly schedule and caseworkers are free to book times with them. Each step on a client file is under the guidance of SLA’s 5 advising lawyers. You can get a significant amount of time with the advising lawyers depending on the complexity of the file or legal issue. Whether it's reviewing disclosure or trial preparation, the SLA can provide great mentorship. It’s really what you make of it!
What are some of your favourite moments working with SLA?
I really enjoy making submissions in court. There have been several opportunities to do so, such as participating in hearings and preparing for trial. I remember one pre-trial conference in a civil matter in which I had prepared a long script. I spoke two sentences in the hearing and the judge said, “I don’t think I need to hear any further from you.” In the context of this hearing, it was a very good thing to hear. It meant the judge understood exactly what our position was and thought that the Plaintiff needed to provide something to rebut our position. Shortly after the pre-trial conference, the Plaintiff withdrew their claim against our client. Moments like that are always enjoyable.
In terms of general positive experiences, the best ones come during your last appearance with the client. For example, I once went with a client who was facing a traffic ticket. I had many reasons why I believed the client shouldn’t be prosecuted or prosecuted for a lesser offence. After providing the reasons to the Crown before trial, the Crown decided to withdraw the charge, and the client was very happy, avoiding possible demerit points and a large fine.
Has there ever been a time where you wish you could have done more for a client?
Some situations you deal with at SLA can be difficult. The hardest for me to deal with have been files where the client has options that could lead to a positive outcome, but due to unfortunate circumstances, such as homelessness or drug addiction, we lose contact with the client, or the client is unable to take advantage of some of the programs the court has to remedy their situation. Being unable to help can be difficult emotionally, but my colleagues are there to talk about it and provide support.
Do you have any words of wisdom for students thinking of joining SLA?
If you join SLA in 1L, you’ll be put into a file team with a group leader and mentor. This is your primary support team and it’s important to stay in contact with them. If you have questions, ask them as soon as you can. The worst thing you can do is not do something because you don’t know how. Of course, students are balancing work with their courseloads, so communication with your mentors is key if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Students should take advantage of the resources you have as part of the organization and work as a team.
Any final words for our readers?
I encourage all incoming 1Ls to get involved with SLA. It is one of the best opportunities to learn practical legal skills while in law school regardless of the area of law you may be interested in practicing. You’ll learn client management, how to do client interviews, and how to manage a file throughout its lifetime. Those are very practical skills, especially later in your career when you want to bring in business and manage a client no matter what area of practice you want to pursue.
I’d also like to tell any upper-year students that didn’t participate in SLA in 1L that it’s not too late. You can still join.