SLS Conference, Legal Education, session 4 & final thoughts

by Paul Maharg on 23/09/2016

Final legal education session.[1]We had a call-off at the last minute, so only two speakers.  First up, Melissa Hardy on her research into the third year of a three-year cohort study into the career intentions of law degree students in the context of current and proposed legal education and training reforms

She started by describing her cohort study — the context, sample size, respondent profile, research questions and summary of key findings.  She started in 2010/11, details on UKCLE website (now archived).  Inevitable fall-off of respondents: first year, 224 respondents, second year, 137, third year, 87.  Lots of validation between her study and the UKCLE study on the same subject.  Research questions were wide — eg What range of reasons do students have choosing to study on a QLD.  On career intentions, majority of respondents enrolled on law degree intending to enter the legal profession slumped between year 2 and 3.  Reasons for studying law were also studied.  She disaggregated the data based on Russell Group, pre-92 Russell Group, and post-92.

Perceived value of the law degree was analysed, and the content of the law degree.  Her conclusions were interesting, giving comment on SQE, the competing needs of the split profession (which will increase according to her), and the ongoing value of the law degree.  LPC and BPTC courses were clearly unpopular because of cost.  More will not go into the profession than at present, so law schools need to consider what their content will be in a relatively less regulated environment.  Legal practice skills might be presented as more generic skills, eg drafting, advocacy, etc.  Her results should give comfort to law schools — respondents valued the law degree, and may not if it becomes a crammer for the SQE.  Big question — what happens if there are cheaper, quicker ways to achieve qualification than the law degree.  There were lots of data in Melissa’s intriguing work that I couldn’t summarise here – I recommend contacting her to obtain further information if you’re interested.  It’s a valuable longitudinal piece of research, and we have so few such studies in legal education.

Final speaker, Nigel Duncan on ‘Wild card modules: student experience of domestic violence, employment and social security clients on a credit-bearing module’.  This research arose out of the clinical options on the City U. Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC).  He conducted research into the student experience.  He used pre-experience survey of clinic students (27 out of 47), focus group and post-experience survey of the students followed up with a focus group of 6 students.  He was interested in improving the options, but also considering the impact of working with real clients and of being assessed on that work, including students’ affective responses and their preparation for practice.

On student motivation, most comments related to own personal development; and a minority added a more client-focussed perspective (cf Nicolson’s concern about this issue, that students come to see real clients as being there for them, rather than vice versa).  From the feedback he obtained, students were very aware of client needs.  Re sources of anxiety, the main one was understandably concern about letting the client down. On emotions re the client, students perceived largely that they did reasonably well (compare with the results in my co-written 2006 correlational study assessing simulated clients, tutors and students, where students proved to be highly variable and unreliable in their estimation of their own performances when correlated to both simulated client and tutor scores).  Experiences were profound in conference, as in tribunals (‘I’ve never felt so sick and nervous in my life’).

On assessment, students expressed worries about assessment — as one student put it, ‘I am worried that getting an Outstanding mark on the course is not as straightforward as in other options’.  There were some comments to back up this statement, thought the stats seemed to indicate that they knew what to do.  Developing empathy, Nigel stated, is central, and he said that students needed to have a degree of control over what they did in order to express that empathy.  This was problematic in the domestic violence cases, where students could not represent their clients in court.  Developing moral courage was essential — initially through simulation, he said, then with real clients.  A fine piece of empirical work that gave rise to interesting questions and responses.

And that was the end of the Legal Education session at SLS 2016.  Final thoughts?  The food was excellent, throughout section B anyway; and it was great to see colleagues and chat over coffee; and SLS managed some balmy oxfordian late summer weather for us.  The sessions in Legal Education were interesting, well chosen and organised by Caroline Strevens our Legal Ed Chair – kudos to her.  Maybe it’s just me getting older and restive with the format but I do think that the 20 mins paper format has come to an end of its useful life as a way of communicating scholarly ideas.  We need to rethink digital comms of papers in larger-scale conferences such as SLS, so that they’re more useful for both audiences and speaker as well as those who could not be present; and more resonant for the future of the topic being discussed.  Above all, more integrated.  Take our Law Teacher Special Issue session, for instance.  The session could have been recorded and the presentations and comments put up beside the papers as alternative versions of the papers on The Law Teacher site – or preferably not The Law Teacher, which is paywalled, but a truly open access site.  The papers themselves could be revisited in a year or two or five, in a panel session.  And conversations could be continued on a blog, much as I’m trying to do here.  And we could also design the provision of online spaces for its membership and others internationally to come together to discuss, plan, produce, reflect around the conference and its outputs.  And… well you get the idea, I won’t go on.  I’m not suggesting that as a section Legal Education carry this out – it’s much too big a project, and needs to be undertaken by the SLS secretariat as a whole, and funds devoted to its design and development.  Can’t imagine the SLS taking that on any time soon though.

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