CELTS Conference, 30 March 2009, University of Strathclyde

by Paul Maharg on 30/03/2009

Every year professional legal educators from the smaller jurisdictions in these isles get together for an annual conference – small-scale, but valuable, because the scale of small jurisdictions creates its own opportunities and its own problems.  This year we're hosting the conference in GGSL, University of Strathclyde Law School.  The theme is professionalism, and I'm going to introduce the theme to the conference by telling two interlinked stories…

The first is well-known (wikipedia account here). An Airbus 320, en route for Seattle-Tacoma via North Carolina, takes off from La Guardia, and two minutes into its flight loses thrust in both engines due to bird strike.  Capt Sullenberger takes over while First Officer races through three pages of protocols, on emergency procedures that normally take place at 35,000 feet, not 3,000 feet.  Some options for a return to La Guardia or an airfield in New Jersey are swiftly considered, dismissed; the plane is ditched in the Hudson.  All 155 passengers are saved.  

At the award ceremony where Sullenberger and his crew are decorated he is also given a replacement copy of a book he left behind him in the cabin — Sydney Dekker's Just Culture: Balancing Safety and Accountability.  One of the first narratives of professional lapse (the term is inadequate to the reality of what happened) is of an intensive care nurse who injects a baby with 200ml, rather than 20ml of a drug.  The baby dies.  The case is complex — the doctor's instructions were inadequate, lost, never found, procedures could have been lax; the nurse tried her best to double check the dosage, to no avail; the case wound its way to the Supreme Court, and at the end of the day the 'psychological devastation' of the nurse was complete.  

Two narratives of professionalism from two professions, both of them such valuable stories for us in legal education.  The first is a casebook example of swift, intuitive judgment which followed protocols unerringly, but also did much more.  The second is a narrative of professional accountability, what we do with the concept, how professionalism can be compromised in slack working procedures and cultures.  

Both stories have key lessons for all of us in legal education.  But the conference has started, so I'm now into live-blogging…

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