Experiential learning & simulated clients

by Paul Maharg on 12/02/2015



Just finished reading a fine report on experiential learning, with simulated clients at the core of the analysis.  The report is published by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS), as part of its legal education initiative, Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, and is entitled Ahead of the Curve: Turning Law Students into Lawyers, authored by Alli Gerkman (Director, Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers) and Elena Harman, independent evaluator, and with research by Lloyd Bond and William M. Sullivan (Carnegie Report co-authors).  The report focuses on New Hampshire Law School’s Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program (DWS), which provides a ‘combination of training and assessment over a two-year period that serves as a variant to the two-day Bar Examination’, and assesses the Program’s outcomes.  So what were the results?

In the Executive Summary the authors list the findings as follows:

  • In focus groups, members of the profession and alumni said they believe that students who graduate from the program are a step ahead of new law school graduates;
  • When evaluated based on standardized client interviews, students in the program outperformed lawyers who had been admitted to practice within the last two years; and
  • The only significant predictor of standardized client interview performance was whether or not the interviewer participated in the Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program. Neither LSAT scores nor class rank was significantly predictive of interview performance. (1)

These are great results for DWS.  The report analyses how DWS achieved its successes, noting that the programme can be

unbundled into the key elements—most notably, the combination of formative and reflective assessment in a practice-based context and a focus on collaboration between the academy and the profession. Part of the genius of the program was its collaborative roots. Together, practicing lawyers and law schools can innovate effectively. (1)

To which key elements I would add another, namely international cross-jurisdictional collaboration.  For as the report acknowledges, the Standardized Clients or Simulated Clients (SCs) were trained by Karen Barton and myself, using the same methodology we used to achieve significant results in the Glasgow Graduate School of Law (GGSL) at Strathclyde University, Glasgow.  And I was first introduced to John Garvey of UNH by Clark Cunningham, at the conference on the Carnegie Report in 2008 organised by Clark at Georgia State U College of Law in Atlanta GA.  Clark and I have written separately and together on the theme, so graphically summed up by the title of one of his articles, Should American Law Schools Continue to Graduate Lawyers Whom Clients Consider Worthless?  It’s a question that goes to the heart of so much of legal education; and a contributory factor in the state of law student health highlighted recently in the Wellness Forum, and liveblogged here.

Our work at GGSL was central to the use of SCs at UNH.  The eight ‘global criteria’, for instance, that was adopted as assessment criteria for DWS, was developed painstakingly and iteratively in a series of Delphi sessions with academics and practitioners in a small room in the GGSL in 2005.  And another key element — not just cross-jurisdictional, but multi-disciplinary collaboration too.  Much of what we learned in the early days at GGSL was due to Professor Jean Ker, then Director of the Clinical Skills Unit and now Professor of Medical Education at the University of Dundee, who with her colleagues was unfailingly generous and wise in her advice on our young project.

The report notes the use of simulation to help students understand ethics in practice:

Students participate in simulations and engage with live clients and real judges throughout the program, in addition to formal externships during their third year. The DWS simulations create fact-based settings embedded with ethical issues to help students learn to make decisions and solve problems while also developing ethical and moral judgment that can be applied in their real client experiences. By the time DWS scholars graduate, they have made—and corrected—numerous real world mistakes. As a result, they know where and how mistakes are made and how to avoid them as practicing lawyers. (15)

And, as at GGSL, collaboration is used extensively:

Participants reported that in these courses, DWS scholars do not compete with one another. Instead, they “support each other and push each other to do well.” The program facilitates a collaborative environment by having the same students working together over two years, in small courses, on projects that one could not complete alone. For example, students are split into two mock law firms and develop a case over the term, sometimes given three weeks to write 50-60 pages of briefs. This experience helps students realize “that you come up with a better product when you collaborate, which is better for the client.” (15)

And of course there was collaboration between staff on the project — John Garvey, Karen and I co-wrote a chapter on the use of SCs in The Arts and the Legal Academy: Beyond Text in Legal Education. 

UNH is not the only centre to use SCs that is reporting real success.  The approach has been praised by solicitors in Ireland when the approach was developed by Rory O’Boyle and Freda Griely as part of a CPD programme; the success of the QLTS, developed by the SRA and where SCs are central, has been extensively analysed here and here [paywalls]; and in Hong Kong University Faculty of Law Wilson Chow and his colleagues are generating remarkable data on trans-cultural interviews, soon to be published.  At ANU, we shall be forming a research cluster in our centre to further examine and analyse the heuristic, with the aim of producing a book on the subject — one that’s interdisciplinary, cross-jurisdictional, juristic in depth, educational in breadth.  More soon on that.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Follow me on Academia.edu