Collaboration & convergence

by Paul Maharg on 02/05/2012

I shouldn’t really be, but I’m always surprised by how little inter-institutional collaboration takes place in legal education.  Here’s an example of how valuable it can be not just for the partners, but for students and regulators too.

At the GGSL we knew we were woefully short of materials on professional legal research.  When I worked on the first joint Diploma at the GGSL there was little at either Glasgow or Strathclyde worth building with, and it seemed that all Diploma centres in Scotland created small scenarios and activities, but had neither an overall curriculum strategy nor had read the literature on professional and digital literacies.  Our solicitor-tutors told us that our Diploma students were reasonably good at academic research, but they couldn’t research or write anything that would be useful for a client, or for a supervisor.

On a visit to Nick Johnson at the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice (this wd be about 2001 or so [it looks like it’s now part of Oxford Brookes Law School, and GGSL of course is now no longer — folded into Strathclyde Law School]) which at that time had one of the City LPC contracts, I was shown a doorstopper of a legal research manual produced by City firms for their trainees and adapted for the LPC.  Trouble was that the LPC students didn’t really use it – it was impenetrable, a Gordian knot of a textbook that only compliance-oriented practitioners with little understanding of educational resources could produce.  There was a golden moment of mutual need: OXILP needed a useable version, I needed materials.  We formed a joint agreement by which GGSL used OXILP resources and produced an online & CD resource.  I edited text with OXILP staff, and produced a learning design with the Learning Technologies Development Unit, who coded up in Flash.  We radically reduced the text, but used the valuable key concepts of professional research within it.  We did this by transforming much of the handbook into a series of short guidelines – supporting texts for a series of activities in the lifecycle of research and communication of the research that started with students defining the task, and ended with them creating a short, powerful memo that set out the research and its findings for a particular audience.  Legal research and writing were treated not as simplistically linear (do research, write it up) but as the rhizomatic activities they really are — the basic research into compositional practices have told us that for decades — writing as negotiated construction, as a form of literate, situated practice in transitional spaces.

Took about five months and if I remember right around five iterations of the text (steep learning curve for those staff who’d never produced web text before).  But at the end GGSL produced a multimedia unit on professional legal research that, as far as I know, is still in use at Strathclyde on the Foundation Course in Professional Legal Skills.  Don’t know if OXILP still use it, but they were very satisfied with the result at the time.  There was added value in the technology for both OXILP & GGSL: as a result of the collaboration we had a multimedia unit that converged professional research and professional writing in a way that would have been very difficult to do in linear text.

In the GGSL the next stage, though, was the important one for us: embedding the key concepts of the multimedia unit in the curriculum activities of the Diploma, so that the integration of research and professional writing were carried through into other activities.  That was achieved, and the OXILP collaboration was critical to its success.

For me the episode was a lesson on how some practitioners (don’t) think about professional education, how dull compliance approaches were, how genuine collaboration could be exciting, how professional legal research training works best as just-in-time and when embedded with the tasks that normally accompany it in the workplace.  And of course there are profound issues here for regulators, for the concept of a shared space in the marketplace, for the idea of shareable learning between institutions, and shareable learning resources, and for the intellectual task of converging academic research/writing with its professional counterpart.

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