Australian National University, Legal Workshop

by Paul Maharg on 27/05/2012

I returned recently from spending seven days at the College of Law in the Australian National University in Canberra, part of my duties as Adjunct Professor there.  ‘Duties’ is exactly the wrong word.  It’s a real pleasure to be working, planning and implementing innovative legal education with such a dedicated bunch of staff, both in the Legal Workshop (the professional end of the College) and from the College itself – including doctoral work.  Staff from Legal Workshop have already been presenting their work at conferences, eg this year at ALT, and their work in sims & curriculum design is beginning to attract notice over here in the UK.  Below the fold is an example…

Roberta McRae, who works in the Legal Workshop, discussed with me how she was creating an authentic Conveyancing transaction within ILE (Integrated Learning Environment).  The environment, based upon SIMPLE, enables students to carry out transactions, much as they did in the GGSL – sale and purchase of property.  The APLEC competences upon which the transaction was based were not a million miles away from the Law Society of Scotland’s Conveyancing learning outcomes, so there was useful synergy there.  There were two important practical differences, however.  Where the transaction in Scotland stretched to over one semester, the transaction at ANU required to be finished in seven weeks, which of course affected the pace and content of the transaction.

Secondly, in GGSL we found that the dance of the tightly bounded sim required both student firms involved in a transaction to be monitoring the transaction very closely.  If one firm lost its way, or missed a deadline, it seriously affected the other.  We didn’t want to risk the consequences of this, so for each transaction we created shell firms, with admins answering student firms’ correspondence from within them.  Roberta, though, stuck to the original idea, with student firm on student firm, and she directed firms and tutors to keep everyone on track in the transaction – as someone involved on the margins of the GGSL transaction I can testify to what a remarkable feat of organization this is – year on year!

The result is a powerful learning tool where students can learn so much about what practical implementation of legal theory is about, as well as the ethics of client representation.  The immersive reality of the transaction can be deceptive at points: Roberta recalled one student telling her that she (the student) had picked up the phone book at one point to call the client.  Actually, the student was only enacting William Gibson’s famous statement that the future is already here, just not evenly distributed.  One future for a transaction such as this is to have the client, a standardized client, on the end of a phone.  And further in the future, to have a sophisticated case management system capable of capturing data from the increasingly varied media platforms that students use – phones, landline and mobile, texts, voicemail, email, discussion forums, digital letters, etc (something I explore in more detail in my chapter in Affect).

And as Roberta pointed out, the transaction changes the nature of what the students learn.  She observed that they come to appreciate that the transaction is more than the sum of its parts, and that the sense of the arc of the transaction is crucial to an understanding of the parts.  She noted that they learn about the ‘elasticity’ (her term) of a file: Conveyancing might seem to be a lockstep process, but it was important, she argued, particularly for novices, to check a file backwards in order to think forward.

This might appear to be a commonplace but it’s actually a fascinating point, and a point of reasoning that’s under-theorized in legal educational literature.  In conventional legal education students almost never create and maintain files, so the opportunity of dwelling upon a transactional object, of reasoning backwards and forwards within it, is rarely given them.  And yet, as medical education has pointed out, the skills of inductive and hypothetico-deductive reasoning, to give these forms of reasoning their proper titles, are essential to any professional practice, not just medicine or law.  The practice of such reasoning is a powerful learning tool, as I point out in my discussion of problem-based learning in Transforming Legal Education, in a discussion of Krieger’s insightful work; and the position we take on this fundamentally affects how we teach legal education:

Krieger argues that the role of doctrinal or domain knowledge is an essential pre-requisite to the learning of clinical skills and that attempting to teach both at the same time causes cognitive overload in students. He also draws upon Patel’s argument regarding backward and forward reasoning to claim that we may not necessarily be teaching best practice models to our students.[1] Both he and Patel are right of course: domain knowledge is crucial to the development of schemas and scripts.  But in drawing heavily upon Patel and her tradition of research, Krieger commits himself to the division of basic science knowledge learning and clinical work that PBL from the start has tried to heal. Also important is the ethical and narrative context of practitioners’ scripts, their contribution to growth, identity and the effect of communities of practice upon the development of reasoning skills.[2]  Is it possible to do what Krieger advocates in his eminently sensible guidelines for traditional curricula in his paper and integrate traditional domain learning fully with clinical or simulation work? Is it possible as he describes it, to overcome the inflexibility of scripted practice and encourage a balance between ‘entirely scripted and completely open-ended lawyering’?.[3]

The last third of Transforming discusses just that possibility.  Roberta’s work shows it actually happening.  And open-ended lawyering can include imaginative and creative forms of writing.  For example in the GGSL we had a project called ALIAS — Ardcalloch Legal Information Advice Service (very early version here) — where students wrote articles in web bulletins for their virtual firm’s clients.  The activity involved legal research, client-based writing, web-based composition and much else; and gave students the opportunity to practise skills they would otherwise never practise in academia.  We require lengthy essays, dissertations, theses, reports: what of the skills of web writing, blog postings, professional tweeting?  Roberta and I discussed how this could be integrated into the students’ work.

The week was full of such discussions and examples, together with debates, planning, advice, and (for me) learning about the nature and power of experiential learning – the best form of learning.

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