Standardized Clients @ Northumbria University Law School

by Paul Maharg on 16/09/2011

Karen Barton and I were at Northumbria U Law School this week, training Standardized Clients (SCs), at the invitation of Jonny Hall, Acting Associate Dean.  We had a brilliant time – what a great bunch of SCs – attentive, witty, fast learners.  Northumbria U. is the first English university to adopt the method – why Northumbria?  Why should other English law schools follow suit?

Northumbria is known for its clinical teaching and learning.  But this happens in the fourth year of the law degree.  Staff felt that there was a gap between the academic learning that students undertook in first & second years, and the clinical experience in fourth year.  The experience of working with SCs in their third year will be one bridge between to the two quite different forms of learning.  It makes a lot of sense: simulation works well as a preparation for clinic, as well as being a powerful  heuristic in its own right.  Karen and I trained 16 SCs for three and half days – pretty tiring but never boring, and I can truly say that everyone involved (around 8 tutors and ourselves as well as the SCs) learned so much from the process.

What was unique about the Northumbria SC initiative was that they were attempting to standardize client work not just in a first interview but in a second, advice-giving interview as well.  We’d never trained for this type of interview, and we weren’t sure if it was possible to standardize clients on it, given the range of options that might be presented by a student.  But after fairly intensive planning sessions with Jonny and his team of academic clinic staff (remarkably dedicated, all of them) we found a way of doing it.  This is a significant step forward for the SCI, for it means we’ll have a set of global ratings that can be used in second and subsequent interviews.  The Northumbrian tutors will be writing up the global ratings, together with Likert scale criteria, and we hope to publish it and all associated documentation on the SCI website so that anyone interested in using it with students and practitioners can do so.

And why wouldn’t you want to?  It’s a wonderful way for students to learn not just about interviewing but about communication and rhetoric generally, how to handle layers of substantive law, how to carry out legal research, write, draft and think about and enact ethics in contexts.  They also learn about themselves: how they might form a professional voice, how they will deal with their own internal conflicts about law, how they will shape legal knowledge around the other’s concerns and wishes.

There’s the wider context of course: it’s a remarkably democratic method of teaching.  It involves legal academics helping ordinary people to help students to learn; then those ordinary people assessing students (or lawyers) on the lived experience of the interview – to that extent the law school is democratically opening its doors to the wider public, and inviting them into the heart of the learning and assessment process.

And there are further ramifications of the method.  If the SRA can design the use of SCs successfully in QLTS, in part by using our experience on the SCI (and remember QLTS is purely an assessment), why don’t we use the SCI to develop SCs on LPC assessments?  A number of Northumbria tutors noted how finely grained the SC assessment criteria were in comparison to the much cruder LPC grade criteria they were familiar with.  But why stop there — why don’t other law schools, like Northumbria, embed it within the undergraduate LLB?  Don’t all rush to answer…


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