Sumayyah Malna is a lecturer in law and solicitor at the University of Bristol Law Clinic. She is also the Law School Director of Employability and co-chair of the Staff BAME Committee. In this blog, created from the transcript of a recent filming session, Sumayyah provides some background on why she decided to choose a career in law, the benefits of pro bono legal work and how this can benefit students learning and the wider community.
Why did you choose to pursue a legal career?
I wanted to go into law to do medical law, because that was specifically what I was interested in. I didn’t want to do corporate/commercial stuff – I was very set on doing the medical side of things. So my experience throughout my training contract and in practice put me in good stead to then move over to the University of Bristol Law Clinic. I have worked with people who have suddenly had their lives upended and they have these huge legal problems, but they don’t have the money and the resources that other companies and organisations have – and public funding isn’t always available.
What type of legal work have you worked on in the past?
I’ve worked on the opposite side, working for the NHS Trust in Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), who ran those cases as well – so I’ve seen first-hand that power imbalance. Moving across to the University and working at the Law Clinic, I really wanted to help address that balance by taking on some of the work that I used to do when I was working for NHS Trust and CCGs, by empowering those members of our community with the help of the students and their brilliant work, so that they’re in a better position when they are addressing these legal proceedings.
I trained at a firm called Irwin Mitchell, where I practiced clinical negligence law. I also worked in public law and human rights, assisting with legal aid claims against state bodies like NHS trusts against CCGs as well. I then qualified and moved over to a firm called Bevan Brittan, where the majority of my caseload was inquest work and court of protection work. This involved advising NHS trust and CCGs in relation to their patients who didn’t have mental capacity to make decisions – and going to court on behalf of our clients, putting forward cases in front of the judge.
How has this experience shaped your work at the Law Clinic?
Having worked on both sides of the table, I feel like I’ve got a unique perspective in terms of insight into the power imbalance that appears in courtrooms or among negotiations as well. I’m keen to equip our students with an understanding of the larger context in which the law exists. Looking at power imbalances, looking at our clients in context is people who don’t just exist in a vacuum but exist as a result of their experiences. And what that means for the choices that they’ve made that led them here, but also looking at ourselves as lawyers and the choices that we make and how that impacts the case as a whole.
What provision is there for clinical legal education in the curriculum?
I teach on clinical legal studies, which is a third-year optional unit. The unit involves students being part of our Law Clinic and running cases on behalf of our local community, but also taking that one step further and looking at the academic side of clinical legal work. So, looking at our clients in context, what do their experiences mean? How does that shape what the decisions that we make as lawyers? What regulations are in place and why are they in place? What is our justice system all about? Is it an effective justice system? What can we do to make change? What power do our students have in providing pro bono work and further on in their careers in terms of effecting real change?
What can students gain from being part of the Law Clinic?
Being a part of the Law Clinic is such a wonderful opportunity for our students. Students feel really inspired to actually go into law that has a social justice element to it, so they’ve seen that there’s a different side to law. That’s not just the corporate and commercial side to it in terms of working for big, faceless corporations, but that there’s real value in and working for and acting for individuals who really do value the support that we’re able to give. Whether that’s going to be legal aid work or pro bono work, working for law centres and the like.
It gives them the responsibility that they’re not going to get anywhere else at this stage of their career, directly interviewing their clients and asking questions of their client. The direct contact with the client is quite unusual to get at this stage of their career.
We have students who have come up against huge law firms and have been to court, have advocated on behalf of their clients. They’ve learned skills in terms of negotiation and drafting documents for particular parties that really are invaluable skills that will serve students well, whether they decide to go into law, or if they decide to do something else entirely.
Find out more
Don’t forget to read the full Volunteering Week blog series to find out more about the options for gaining real-life experiences of law, in social justice and beyond, whilst studying at the Law School. Find out more about our Law Clinic work and careers opportunities on our webpages.