IJCLE Conference 2013 – Sharing Across Models of Experiential Clinical Legal Education

Welcome to another of my slightly self-indulgent, personal insight reservoir blogs, complete with a rather wordy title. I am not in any way sorry for that, so if you do not have at least a passing interest in clinical legal education (“CLE”) I think it is fair to assume this blog is not for you. What this blog is for is to force me to write-up some of my own notes from “Common Ground: Sharing Across Models of Experiential Clinical Legal Education”, the joint (a) 11th International Journal of Clinical Legal Education Conference and (b) 12th Australian Clinical Legal Education Conference, held at Griffith University at Brisbane’s South Bank. (The title of this blog largely tracks the title of the conference.)

I have already put together a Storify of the three day event, so I shall not repeat what is said there here. I will also not seek to replicate the conference resources that are available online here (I understand presentation aids may also be made available online). And I will definitely not use this post to explain at length what CLE is and when it should be embraced at a law school. Other resources are available.

So what will I do? I will use this post to provide some snippets of what was either a new bit of knowledge, or a new insight into something I already knew about (or at least thought I knew about). I will also give some general thoughts on the conference itself.

The Conference

I understand from an Australian colleague at Aberdeen that there is something of an Antipodean mooting in-joke, where students will jostle to refer to “the vibe” of a legal authority in a moot, in tribute to the film “The Castle“. Drawing on that, I am happy to report the vibe of the conference was great. No hoarding of supposedly fantastic research ideas. No reticence in sharing successful course models and teaching tips. Just a bunch of people intent on sharing and facilitating anything and everything from their various experiences and experimentation with CLE. Maybe I am romanticising matters, but the twin educational and social justice goals of CLE really do bring together people with a certain calling as clinicians. As such, most clinicians are ready to pass on hints and tips for the greater good. This all contributed to a very enjoyable conference, be that in dialogue over lunch, at a social event or in the plenary sessions.

A theme of the conference was “common ground”, which Professor Jeff Giddings acknowledged at the start of the first day, rather fittingly after a “Welcome to Country” address which highlighted the common ground literally shared with Australia’s First Peoples (on which, see my earlier blog). The common ground theme was primarily about providing a forum to air experiences, which could be very different but will always channel back to a core CLE purpose. Clinic experiences can differ by being based on programmes that (for example):

  1. are simulated rather than live-client, with different levels of and places for simulation being possible;
  2. (related to the above) are educational (perhaps with a particular vocational focus) rather than public benefit oriented;
  3. engage with advice and representation or are advice only;
  4. are based on an externship model rather than law-school based;
  5. (linked to the previous two) operate directly out of a court or other administrative building or not.
  6. are co-curricular or intra-curricular (and perhaps even compulsory);
  7. involve an additional community, or Street Law, element;
  8. are student- or university-founded/run;
  9. have different supervisor/student ratios and expectations.

There will be other differences, but that will do for starters. For anyone who wants to know any more, Professor Giddings’ new book (which was launched at the conference) is a great place to start. You can even access it online here: what was it I said about clinicians being keen to share ideas? All those experiential learning insights, not to mention the best practice guides from the UK, USA and Australia* (see references below), can mix together in what seems like a rather scary and difficult to manage cauldron, but attending a conference like this one can really help to distill the brew.

To return to Professor Giddings’ book briefly, although I have only dipped into it a little to date it does appear to be a tour de force of matters CLE. The book may seem a little Australian-centric at times, but it is certainly no worse for that. A short review by fellow conference delegate Kristoffer Greaves is available here. Of all that took place at the conference, the inspirational vibe of the book launch was difficult to dodge.

New Insights

What follows, in no particular order, are some eclectic notes that I jotted down.

On pedagogy, I refer you to a Snoopy insight (from slide 4 here) – it’s all very well saying you have taught Snoopy to whistle, but has he learnt? Teaching is only effective when you can prove Snoopy can whistle!

On lawyering and pedagogy, both are fundamentally about communicating something so that it is understood. This would be true at the client consultation stage as contrasted with a new law student, when you may have a blank canvas, and is also true when you have a sophisticated client or even when you are addressing judge, as contrasted with a “student” at an advanced level of study.

On the role of best practices, they can be used to convince people in university hierarchy as to what you are planning, and they can protect the clinical movement against any mavericks. But is there a tension between best-practices and individualistic approaches, with the former implying that one size fits all?

On ethics, the layers to a problem scenario can often be legion. In, say, a scenario where an adviser has to juggle a duty to his client with a duty to a court/tribunal (after a loose disclosure by the client), people quickly focus on the conflict of interest/confidentiality issues measured against a wider duty to the court, but what about issues like personal morality (where you disagree with a client’s actions), societal morality (where you might question the apparent duty to disclose), and indeed the ethical ability to spot an issue in the first place (think of Rest’s work about the four components of moral behaviour: sensitivity; judgement; motivation; and courage). (One particular session made me really wonder about what exactly we should be doing at an undergraduate level as far as ethics is concerned, given a tendency to hold things back to a vocational stage, and even at that stage to make ethics very practice oriented.)

On ethics and pedagogy, the shift in perspective for a student in a clinic when they suddenly realise they are not the most important thing any more can have a truly profound impact. The other is suddenly the most important. (Followers of Levinas’ postmodern ethic of alterity may find an analogy there.)

On Street Law, the discussion was mainly focussed on those who might want to introduce this extra feature. It could be sold as a great way to expand a clinic or tick off certain graduate attributes at an institution. In terms of the practicalities of introducing it to a course and assessing it, one model that was discussed was assessing a practice-run at (for example) a presentation to school pupils, then allowing that to progress to the actual presentation to school pupils. This would make simulation actually contribute to a finished product, removing many of the objections to simulation as misplaced resources, and also would not upset the dynamic of the actual presentation when it comes to be delivered.

On participation of students in a court environment (whether in a role akin to McKenzie friends, as at the Exeter community legal helpdesk, or the Land and Environment Court Clinic in New South Wales), such activity gives students a real chance to participate and engage with challenging issues like access to justice and equality before the law. At the conference, it was noted that there can even be a benefits to a court, who may find fresh perspectives being brought by the students!

On supervision, the sheer variety of supervision ratios was instructive, with it being as low as 1:6 (staff:student) on the dedicated Northumbrian programme, or 1:48 in Witwatersrand, South Africa.

Another related practical challenge was in relation to language, with the South African example again being particularly thought-provoking. That young democracy has 11 official languages, so there may be times when a student who shares a language with the demographic with the highest level of unmet legal need suddenly gets the most cases. I wonder how many places in the UK have similar issues where, for example, a bilingual English/Polish or English/Urdu student suddenly feels pressured to take on cases from those communities?

On legal writing, a very interesting presentation by Cath Sylvester and Carol Boothby noted the struggle that students have to convert the writing skills they learn at undergraduate level into what is expected for a clinic. The lack of “joined-up-ness” seemed to be an issue, with no thread (or at least no thread visible to students) allowing student transfer of writing proficiency from one year to the next. The suggested way of combatting this was, unsurprisingly, feedback on formative and summative assessments which makes any links to clinic writing, and future live-client work, explicit.

Concluding thoughts

Professor Kevin Kerrigan of Northumbria University concluded the conference by making six different observations on CLE. (I did Storify these, but I am going to backtrack on my promise not to repeat my Storify by using those six remarks to close this blog.) He noted the following about CLE.

  1. CLE is noteworthy for the centrality of students. (Then again, those students may also have clients, and that brings a lesson as well, namely…)
  2. CLE is noteworthy for the ethical awareness it brings to law students.
  3. An emerging CLE theme is a commitment to scholarship, which events like the conference bring to the fore.
  4. CLE increases variety in legal training. (Variety being the spice of life, of course.)
  5. CLE is ideally placed to promote personal development through reflective learning.
  6. CLE can or should improve the dynamic between student and supervisor, all for the benefit of clients/social justice.

As to the conference theme of “common ground”, Professor Kerrigan – perhaps nostalgic for the green and pleasant land of England that he had left behind to attend the conference – made an analogy with the institution known as the village green, or “the common”. Once established as a common, it is common for all to use. In a similar way the conference, complete with its great vibe, was similarly about developing something as a common resource, namely equal access to knowledge, which in turn should contribute to equal access to justice. That is surely a conference, and a movement, to be proud of.

*Adrian Evans and Peter Joy set the various best practices against each other in a PowerPoint presentation. They extracted from the following resources:

US best practices from Roy Stuckey and others, Best Practices for Legal Education: A Vision and a Road Map (US Best Practices), Clinical Legal Education Association, USA, 2007.

Australian best practices from Best Practices: Australian Clinical Legal Education, Australian Government, Office for Learning and Teaching, 2013.

UK best practices from Model standards for live-client clinics (UK Model Standards), Clinical Legal Education Organisation (UK), (Ed. Philip Plowden), 2007.


About basedrones

Bachelor of Laws. Scots lawyer working at the University of Aberdeen. English law qualified. Took far too long to write this bio. Blogs on legal issues, with occasional veering into other purportedly intellectual stuff from time to time. Tweets about legal issues, education, law clinics, fitba, music, rogue cell division and not at all about politics at @MalcolmCombe.
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2 Responses to IJCLE Conference 2013 – Sharing Across Models of Experiential Clinical Legal Education

  1. Pingback: basedrones blog on the recent IJCLE Conference | PleagleTrainer Blog

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