Wellness in Law Forum, day 2: session 6b: Starting Well – The first year experience

by Paul Maharg on 06/02/2015

Final parallel session of the Forum.  First up, Joanne Stagg-Taylor, Griffith U., on ‘Starting the conversation: embedding approaches to hope and wellness in the first year experience’.  She summarised the stressors for anxiety and depression in first year students, eg competition with other students, doing poorly on a course, family care for 5+ hours a week, financial stress (working 20 hours + a week), teamwork (ie that’s poorly organised).  Demographic variables matter little, according to a study by Larcombe.  Joanne went further to take account of Baron’s work on the neoliberal selfhood (?).  Joanne tried to put into place strategies to counteract the self-commodification of selves on courses.  She is investigating apps that can upload anonymously answers to questions, short videos etc.  She is also creating videos where staff talk about themselves and their backgrounds.  Videos, also, that discuss wellbeing and mental health.  And videos with practitioners talking about things like how I got my job, how I cope with workload, etc., and show the full range of job opps available to them.

Next, Tania Leiman and Deborah Ankor, Flinders U., ‘Building positive purpose: connecting commencing law students with future practice’.  Few first year students have any idea what lawyers actually do.  They get this from the media, for the most part.  They have few experiences of the law themselves, either.  As a result they have difficulty with threshold learning outcomes (not quite sure of the causal connection here — though it’s certainly true in the field of ethics or practice, eg).  This means students raise questions — why did I choose to study law?  Anecdotally, as pressure rises in first year, motivation falls.  She cited Alf Lizzio, ‘Designing an orientation and transition strategy for commencing students’ —

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She also cited Sally Kift (of course, given Sally’s stellar work in this area): that students need supported so that they have a foundation for later learning success and a lifetime of professional practice.  What they did was construct a first year clinic placement programme, which helped students to build on their sense of identity in the law.  They wanted student to see the bigger picture, eg a legal dispute; experience real-life ethical implications; link concepts to people; build a sense of purpose, and strength internal motivation.  It enabled belonging to a legal and academic community, connecting, developing responsibility, challenging capacity, and transforming empathy, justice and vocation. How does this happen?  Student books placement day online; watches online induction videos and reads induction fact sheets; signs confidentiality agreement; attends clinic 9-5.00; attends and observes during interviews; types up interns’ notes of interview.  Good moments, eg when the supervisor intern’s mentoring is modelled for first year and intern by lecturer who is driving the minibus to the court, and all this is done in a quietly effective, informal atmosphere. Clinic placement attendance can be substituted for assessment activity in Professional Skills & Ethics module.  52 students made bookings, 47 attended, very positive feedback from all first year students.  Will be carrying out further research particularly longitudinal; but initial feedback from students is very positive.  Clinics won awards, and has a grant to adapt a programme on vicarious trauma, which sounded very interesting.

Can clinic do all this (my question)?  Yes it can; but not always: depends on structure, intent, focus and outcome.  But Flinders certainly seem to have a good model that supports their unique undergrad degree where academic and professional are fused.

Finally, Rachael Field and James Duffy on ‘Teaching dispute resolution in the first year for law student wellbeing’. They started by saying that DR should be a mandatory stand alone subject in the law degree.  Their goal was to encourage law faculties throughout Australia to rethink their curriculum content to include DR. 10 reasons?  Current teaching doesn’t reflect the realities of legal practice; participation in DR processes is mandatory under certain legislation; legal practitioners have a duty to advise clients about ADR processes; ADR instruction allows students to appreciate the importance of emotion (and EI) in the resolution of disputes; lawyers need to better understand the nature and theory of conflict.  This last point I thought was very suggestive, and not just for all professions, but as fundamental democratic knowledge.  Last five reasons for mandatory inclusion — it’s not possible to satisfy the TLOs without exposing students to DR instruction (contentious, but tend to agree); DR instruction can help students to develop a positive professional identity; NADRAC supported the mandatory inclusion of DR in the law curriculum; law students are demanding DR knowledge and skills; teaching DR supports law student psychological well-being.

How can DR support law student psychological wellbeing?  It moves away from adversarialsim; it moves away from zero-sum games; it puts people back into the story; it harnesses SDT theory (autonomy, competence, relatedness); it harnesses intrinsic motivators; and it increases student engagement, interaction with peers and sense of belonging at law school.

They acknowledged that they need to do empirical work on this, but very fine approach.  I did have a colleague at Strathclyde who was adamant that legal DR could not be taught before legal negotiation was taught and understood by students.  I was never sold on that, and this session says why.  Fine session.

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