Engaging and inspiring students in digital rights litigation

By Oliver Butler, 5th July 2019

What can academics and the digital rights NGOs do to engage and inspire students? One of the real joys of working in Universities is being exposed to a wide range of passionate, bright and enthusiastic students. In addition to cultivating a rigorous and critical understanding of legal doctrine and scholarship, there is deep interest among students in connecting their studies to practice, policy development and advocacy of many kinds. This is especially true of human rights and digital rights.

A key strategic goal of the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, where I am a research fellow, is to enrich the exposure of Oxford students to human rights, as well as promoting human rights conversations amongst law students globally. It was a real pleasure to learn from attendees at the Connecting the Digital Rights Field with Academia workshop about different models of student engagement. US legal clinics provide excellent opportunities for their students to develop legal skills through working with strategic litigators. It was particularly striking how well integrated such clinical courses can be with course seminars and broader structures.

At the workshops, we explored how US Law Schools differ from European legal education and what implications this has for effectively engaging students in the work of digital rights NGOs. An important difference lies in the composition of the main student population. JD students at US Law Schools are enrolled on a three-year professional degree course, having already completed undergraduate degrees, where the majority move into practice relatively quickly via State Bar exams. JD degrees have a greater focus on academic and professional development and clinics may be taken for course credit.

By contrast, at European Universities, the main population of law students are enrolled on undergraduate degrees. To take the UK as an example, legal education is divided into academic, vocational and professional stages. A qualifying undergraduate law degree fulfils the academic stage, although increasing numbers of students seek one-year LLM degrees for specialism and advanced study. One-year Legal Practice Courses and Bar Professional Training Courses fulfil the vocational requirements of professional regulators. Professional training is then completed during the first year or two of practice, either through barristers’ pupillages or solicitors’ training contracts. Opportunities during the academic stage are therefore focused on extra-curricular enrichment and career development, although some Universities do award course credit for clinical and other activities. PhD programmes are focused on scholarship and academic career paths, although they increasingly recognise that students might seek broader opportunities after completing a PhD thesis. Of course, many students take courses other than law while maintaining an interest in human rights and digital rights. In this regard, it is important not to overlook the value that computer scientists, economists, political scientists and other disciplines can bring to such projects.

Understanding the challenges these different contexts present and the incentives that may be available to attract students to assist in digital rights litigation is important for the success of student engagement. In our discussions, we noted the importance of distinguishing between different types of students. Undergraduates are understandably relatively inexperienced and the pace of short terms and frequent exams can make recruitment and retention challenging for non-credit participation. LLM courses are short and subject to similar intense teaching and examination schedules. Both types of student are typically only resident during term. PhD students can avoid some of these difficulties, especially when the engagement is related to their research and career ambitions, but they are relatively few in number compared to the other groups.

A key challenge is recruitment and retention, especially where students are under other pressures and engagement cannot be offered for course credit. The workshop discussed the incentives that could be used to address this. In some cases, payment for research assistance may be available but is typically low paid and can be subject to overall limits in some Universities. It is therefore important to recognise the role that recognition can play. Student engagement can be enhanced by ensuring it works as a career development opportunity. Engagement with NGOs with interesting work helps students to stand out in a competitive market, gain experience, and network to learn about the field. More formal recognition, such as letters of thanks, certificates of participation and personalised feedback at the end of programmes can incentivise participation and retention. Opportunities to present their work to NGOs, to publish blog posts, and participate in future internships are valuable and could be better showcased to prospective students. Retention through alumni networks or ambassador roles can also help to build on earlier successes, as can ongoing communication about the value of student input in NGO work.

A further challenge we discussed was the difficulty of engaging students in activities other than “soft” advocacy. European legal systems often limit the forms of legal work that students can undertake, even with appropriate supervision. However, there was a fruitful discussion of the role that students can play in comparative research, freedom of information requests, or formulating complaints to regulators to support NGO work.

The final challenge we discussed was funding for non-credit activities. We discussed the role that intern coordinators successfully play in helping students to identify sources of funds and the benefits of establishing living wage internships for students. This is especially important as funding can have a real impact on inclusiveness. Funding can play a valuable role in promoting diversity and ensuring that the availability of resources does not prevent passionate, bright and enthusiastic students from entering the digital rights field.

Engaging students can be a valuable way for digital rights litigators to bolster their capacity on appropriate projects, while raising awareness of digital rights and inspiring students to become future digital rights litigators and policy-makers.

About the author: Oliver Butler is a Fellow in Law at Wadham College, University of Oxford and a Research Fellow at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, University of Oxford.