Interdisciplinarity: a [productive] rant

by Paul Maharg on 21/05/2006

Can / should lawyers be the sole gatekeepers of the profession?  I’d say no.  Professional legal education is too important to leave to lawyers: most don’t have the in-depth educational skill & knowledge nor do most of them have the time to give to the enterprise. 

It’s also doubtful whether the profession (in Scotland at least, as represented by the Law Society) can financially afford to take complete control of the process — the resources currently allocated to Education & Training are small compared to the total national costs of Diploma in Legal Practice, Professional Competence Course, and two-year traineeship, even in our small jurisdiction.  And if you’re going to control entry nationally, you need a national assessment.  A national assessment requires a national curriculum, which involves training schemes, secretariat, trainers and assessors to create, maintain and assess this curriculum —  truly massive costs, and a top-down model of command & control that to me at least is fundamentally inimical to education, and which would be unable to account for the variety of professional education required in the three-year programme.  What we need, instead, is interdisciplinary working, not just at the gate, but throughout the programme of professional legal education

What sort of interdisciplinary working do we need?  The case of medical education points the way.  Med students learn in hospitals, in GP surgeries; they learn in university libraries, in bioscience dry labs and wet labs; they learn in socio-medical or epidemiological lectures held in lecture theatres or in PBL groups that meet in seminar rooms; they learn individually, collaboratively with each other, and with professionals other than doctors; they learn on simulators and using standardised patients, and they learn on computers, eg MedLine and IVIMEDS and many other applications including multimedia applications, even on PDAs; and as far back as 1998 medical educationalists were using & researching the use of streaming videos of lectures.  Even the purest forms of PBL would recognise a place for most of these forms of teaching & learning.

Who organises all this activity? Who buys the books, organises the online research databases? Who plans the curriculum, reads, analyses, archives medical educational research, organises and embeds forms of teaching and opportunities for learning and assessment into the curriculum, dovetails with substantive medical practices, trains the trainers?  Who is it that plans, writes, implements, maintains a massive global project transforming the face of medical education such as IVIMEDS?  Who writes the code, liaises with medical professionals, designs the interfaces, the activities?  These can only thrive with the involvement of extraordinarily diverse teams from multiple disciplines — look for example at the people behind the multimedia application cited above, and E-Learning Support for Interprofessional Education, or else a cutting edge event such as this.

In Scottish professional legal education we need the same generous, integrative breadth of educational backgrounds, cultures and professional disciplines drawn into the entire process of legal education; and to do that we need to build what Peter Galison, for instance, talking of the sub-disciplines of the physical sciences, called ‘trading zones’ — areas where specialists from different professions and backgrounds meet and collaborate on joint projects, develop their understandings of and respect for each other’s specialities) and contribute to projects that would otherwise be impossible to achieve without their collective input.  I think it’s fair to say that this was rarely the case in Scottish professional legal education before 2000, and it’s only in the last five years or so that we’re beginning to take the implications of this interdisciplinarity seriously — the Standardised Client project at the GGSL is one example.  All of us involved in Scottish professional legal education need to do much more: in an era dominated by the internet and globalisation it can’t be ignored. 

There’s also a more fundamental issue at stake for all of us.  On a political level, the current moves by the Law Society of Scotland to work in active partnership with the other stakeholders in legal education is a sign that things are moving in the right direction.  Accepting that it can’t undertake something as culturally complex and important as the Scottish three-year programme in professional legal education unless it allies itself and liaises closely on entry issues & criteria with other bodies, the Society is demonstrating that it’s taking up its proper, strong, civic role alongside those other stakeholders on issues such as professionalism, democratic values, diversity, standards of conduct, knowledge, skills, etc.  The Society, in other words, becomes one of Galison’s ‘trading zones’, and the position of the Society is strengthened and enhanced as a result. 

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