WG Hart 2014, summary

by Paul Maharg on 27/06/2014

Fascinating two days.  Avrom asked me to join him in summarising some Workshop themes at the final wrap-up because he noted me blogging the event.  Here are the general themes I noted:

  1. Many papers were interdisciplinary and it was so refreshing and stimulating to listen to papers that took this seriously, both in method and in content.  Eg Pat Leighton’s and Maureen Spencer’s fine papers, that encompassed legal history, history of legal education, education, politics.
  2. The Workshop was inter-jurisdictional.  It’s nothing new for conferences to be multi-jurisdictional, and the WG Hart Workshops have a long tradition in it; but in this Workshop the placing of papers and the range of reference by speakers themselves was very interesting and made for much more cross-reference that was the difference between multi & inter.  In one panel, eg, we had Sanaa Alsarghali on the situation of legal education in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, side by side with Kim Economides on regulation in Australia, while Wes Pue gave a bravura performance comparing two jurisdictions and three frontier towns: Toronto, 1820, Birmingham, 1860, Winnipeg, 1920.  David Marrani’s paper, comparing eight tiny jurisdictions, was another example.   Other jurisdictions that were the focus of papers or commentary included Chile, Israel, Germany, Wales, England, US and (in comments only, and taking up the kilted rear), Scotland.
  3. State of legal educational research, particularly empirical work.  I had already commented on aspects of this in my presentation, based on my experience with the literature review for LETR.  The Nuffield Inquiry on Empirical Legal Research set benchmarks and was a warning to us all about the state of empirical research.  Early on in the Workshop there was brief discussion about the need to move into quantitative statistical research and statistical literacy (as if we’re not quite there yet) that didn’t bode well in an era when, as I pointed out in my presentation, legal educational research actually needs to move into new areas such as algorithmic legal research.  And as I pointed out in this summary, when we engage in repeated studies, and move from small to larger studies, and particularly from one jurisdiction to the next, our work must become more sophisticated.  I drew on the example of well-being research.  The earlier studies in Australia in 2004 & 2005 were small-scale.  Rachael Field (QUT) and her Wellness Network for Law (established in 2010), and Stephen Tang and others at ANU College of Law tackled larger samples, and were more sophisticated in their research methodologies and instruments; and this will develop as the methodologies and samples grow interjurisdictionally, as we plan to do.
  4. Definitional projects.  There were many examples in the Workshop of critical analysis of definitions.  Eg Rick Abel’s masterly analysis of the crisis in US legal education; or the work being undertaken by Richard Collier on well-being, and his concern to analyse what’s bubbling under the issues that seem to be defined as ‘well-being’.  Or even more fundamental, the ongoing analysis of how our understanding of what constitutes the status and activity of being lawyer is changing.  And core to the Workshop was the idea of what legal education is.  In terms of curricula, it seemed to be too focused on the undergraduate degree, however.  As William Twining pointed out when he was chairing the first session, postgraduate legal education is still too invisible in the law school by comparison with the undergraduate degree, and this is true of research into postgraduate legal education, too.
  5. LETR.  The main theme of the conference. It’s a year since LETR was published, and we’re moving away from it proper, from regulatory responses into regulatory action, reaction by others, more action, and so forth.  LETR has joined the archive of reports, to be unread, read and misread by all — and that’s as it should be.  But LETR, with its legal services education and training (LSET) remit, remains challenging for legal education research because it has important things to say to us about the status of many aspects of legal education that quite a few researchers tend to ignore.  LPC, BPTC, traineeships, pupillages, Notarial Practice Course, CILEX  qualifications — apart from aspects of some papers, eg Andrew Francis’ outstanding work on employability, these learning environments were largely invisible at the Workshop.  As Jane Ching succinctly observed to me at one point, legal education is a collective noun, not a synonym for LLB.

One final point that I didn’t raise at the time.  Legal ed tech was dispiritingly low-key as a topic for analysis at the Workshop.  I’ll say a bit more about why that is not a good state of affairs in my next post, but the immediate question is why this is so.  How does a conference like CALI’s (held this year in Harvard) go from strength to strength on this issue; or a conference like Reinvent Law conference last week in London attract around 450 participants to discuss, inter alia, the outer edges of professional practice tech and how it can be used in legal education?  The issue is ever more important for us, theoretically, practically and in every way; but it seems to me that too many legal educators turn away from it.  This isn’t a criticism of the Workshop per se (whose theme, after all, was LETR), but of what we legal educators are failing to do in general.

As for the Workshop — the work that was discussed and presented was hugely interesting and stimulating.  I got so much from virtually all the presentations, and from discussions with speakers at breaks and at the dinner, and these blog posts can give only a sketch of the event.  Talking of sketch, one event I haven’t mentioned was particularly resonant.  Avrom has retired as Director of IALS, and his portrait had been painted, to hang in the Institute with the portraits of others.  Before the conference dinner it was unveiled for the Workshop to view, with an encomium to Avrom delivered by his old friend and colleague on many research projects, Alan Paterson — a fitting tribute to a remarkable career in legal education.  I can’t really imagine Avrom being allowed to retire (and indeed Jane Ching and I are working with him on a project at the moment).  One special memory I have is playing doubles tennis with him, Alan Paterson and Paul Bergman at an International Clinical Conference, organised by UCLA and UL at Lake Arrowhead.  If I remember right, it was one match apiece, so am looking forward to the decider…

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