Law Clinic Legacy: Professor Donald Nicolson OBE

A dawn of a new era emerged for the staff and students of the Clinic in September 2017 when we said goodbye to our esteemed founder, Professor Donald Nicolson.

After 14 years at the helm, Professor Nicolson moved down to Essex to start afresh and develop another successful clinic. Before he went, he reflected on his career so far and his time at University of Strathclyde Law Clinic.

Born in South Africa, Professor Nicolson began law school at 17. After working in a law firm in Johannesburg during one vacation, he decided the corporate route was not for him. Prof. Nicolson said: “After university I was told I could be either a teacher or a lawyer so, after qualifying, I taught part-time for 9 months. I loved it. At that stage, I thought I was going to become an academic.”

Professor Nicolson’s first interaction with a law clinic happened during his time in university in South Africa. These encounters with people would be his grounding for his future work and clinics.

He said: “It was the early 1980s. I was highly radicalised by going to university and felt I needed to participate in some way in responding to the injustice of apartheid. My options seemed to be getting involved in student politics or in the law clinic. In my second year I volunteered in the law clinic. I was taken out one night into the townships, I spent the first evening shadowing. From then on, I was on my own.

“My most memorable case was a black person being charged with ‘hawking’ (peddling goods on the floor)  in a ‘white area’. I phoned the police station and said that a mistake had been made and the charge was dropped. I had a definite feeling that you couldn’t be a privileged person and just take part in society.”

In 1984 Professor Nicolson moved to the UK and began to study for his PhD at Cambridge University. He said: “At the time I knew when I left South Africa that I may never return. It was a traumatic thing. The idea was to assess whether I could live here permanently. There was always an intention of not going back because of military service.” And so it proved. Professor Nicolson applied for and obtained political asylum on the grounds of conscientious objection to serving in the South African Defence Force.

While teaching at Bristol, Professor Nicolson started his first law clinic in 1996. Recalling his first foray into leading a clinic he said: “There were around 80 students and we ran from my office. I had an answerphone and a filing cabinet, but our resources were very limited. We used classrooms to interview clients and I had a big enough office for committee meetings.

“There were some ex-solicitors who were reticent, but the rest of the school said that it was better than nothing.”

Clinics are important as a way of giving back to society. Prof. Nicolson said: “Society has given me an enormous amount of privilege: my gender, the colour of my skin, my class. I think you must do as much as you can to give something back. You must equalise the accidents of birth. Clinics matter generally because people need access to justice. You have students with skills and time and you are putting them together with people who need them. You are also producing better lawyers for the future, in terms of both their values and their skills.”

On his new adventure in Essex, Professor Nicolson is looking forward to getting more students involved in providing access to justice for the local community. Developing a clinic would seem like a daunting task to some, but not to Professor Nicolson.

He said: “There is a big difference between our start at Strathclyde and Essex. At Strathclyde, the Clinic had to prove itself as it developed. With Essex, I am starting with a more established foundation. We’ll go through the same journey, but more quickly. The most important thing is getting the ethos right first. Students need to get their hands dirty and they need to own their clinic. What I bring is experience.

“I would also like to get to a point where all students who would like to be involved in pro bono could do so – whether it be within the Clinic or by some secondment.”