Simulated client, final session – ahead of whose curve?

by Paul Maharg on 06/06/2017

So where do we want to take the SCI from here?  That was a key question for us at the final session of the day.  It was observed that however successful the method might be demonstrated to be, there will be some staff and some students who simply will not want to engage.  That’s understandable – variety of learning approaches is a sign of a healthy curriculum.[1]

For those staff wanting to set up a SC unit, much depended on getting management approval and faculty buy-in – that much was clear from the presentations of Nigel Hudson and others.  But as we discussed, the gains are undeniable, in learning, in freeing up staff time, in quality of assessment, in quality of student achievement and engagement, and in terms of cost/benefit.  As the number of successful SC projects grow and the literature increases there is less and less reason why legal educators and regulators should ignore the power of the method.

And yet – we need more studies, many more and on many different aspects of how students learn from the method.  Our original correlative study (Barton, Cunningham, Jones, Maharg (2006), LH column of the SCI site) needs confirmatory studies.  Since that study the work since that study of John Garvey at the University of New Hampshire Law School, and of Wilson Chow and Michael Ng at Hong Kong University Faculty of Law has proven the value of the method in other ways.  It was confirmed by a highly positive, meticulous independent study carried out by IAALS, and by an internal evaluation at ANU College of Law.   One participant – Rachel Kirkup – suggested that longitudinal studies are required in order to ascertain the long-term benefits of SCs, perhaps especially so in practice.  I entirely agreed with her, and (one of my hobby-horses) added that there are almost no longitudinal studies carried out anywhere in legal education.

Drawing on her experience as Director of Learning and Teaching at the University of Hertfordshire, Karen Barton put the day’s work into the context of the TEF proposals and emphasised the necessity of linking our teaching to demonstrably good pedagogy – and evidencing that link.  She’s on the button, for SC is an approach to experiential learning that could play a critical role in the new HE landscape formed by TEF.  The sooner we prepare to form effective, sustainable, critical pedagogies the better we will be in a position to resist what will undoubtedly be the corrosive effects of an enforced Teaching Excellence Framework.[2]

For many of those now using SCs, the embedding of the method as part of staged process of learning was critical to its success. This was as true of its use on a CPD Diploma for lawyers in the Law Society of Ireland as its use by the SRA on QLTS, its use in Northumbria Law School on the undergraduate LLB, and PEAT 1 at Strathclyde University Law School, and the PCLL at Chinese U of Hong Kong (Queenie Lai).

The final point in the final session discussed was perhaps for me the most important.  It was observed that the use of SCs was very much in line with employability agendas; and terms such as ‘client-ready’ ‘practice-oriented’ ‘ahead of the curve’, ‘hit the ground running’ are used in this regard; and indeed the argument is undeniable, the proof is there, and of undoubted value as a lever of persuasion to various audiences within and without law schools.  And yet there’s part of me that shrinks from making that the principle reason why I advocate the method, and not just for the teleological motive that the discourse will alienate many academics in the law school.  Three reasons…  First, it misses the intellectual and critical power of the heuristic – how it is learned, the substantial body of research behind it (over half a century in the case of medical education), the way that we can only learn more about its resonant depths if we are critical practitioner-researchers of our practice.  Second, it also misses the emergence of a discourse of qualities in the educational method that in many respects draws upon the ethical and jurisprudential arguments arising from Stoic virtu, the Ciceronian sense of a commitment to service and a public discourse of civic community, and is itself a critique of the place of lawyers within that discourse.

Third, it may suggest that we’re introducing the educational method to bend to the hegemony of the market.  But for me, the best, possibly the only, reason for using this method of learning arises from its unique phenomenological power.  In his session Nigel Hudson compared the reductionist account of interviewing that the LPC guidelines give us, for instance, to the truly person-centred feedback that arises from the use of trained and sensitive SCs.  That reductionist view of interviewing gives students no agency, no creative space to find their own voice; and so students quite reasonably ask, if that description of interview process is what you want, give us models that we can imitate.  The focus thus shifts from organic development of an ethical self to the copying of forms of behaviour and the rote resumption of knowledge fragments in order to pass an assessment.  Performance criteria become ever more detailed and student performance ever more compliant, ever more demanding, ever more baroquely imitative.  Masquerading as skills education, it’s the opposite of education.

By contrast the SC method advocates no method but by describing students’ client-oriented behaviour, gives the power to learn into the hands of students.  It also gives power to assess students into the hands not of tutors but those Others who assess students on their lived experience of them.  Look, the method says to students, here is a mirror to you as a person, as a professional, in a complex situation: what do you see there?  Does it please you, does it make you want to change, if so what and how?  Fundamentally, the method goes to the core of any profound educational experience, the dialogue with self that’s based upon dialogue with others, the deep power of social learning and associative learning.  Paradoxically its power lies not in pushing us ahead of the curve but in reminding us that we are the curve, we are that Deweyan arc bending into the future.  We are what we learn, now, and in the future we can alter that curve and our lives, based upon learned power to listen to others and to change ourselves.

It was a good day.  I really enjoyed talking with the 27 or so participants who signed up, and I think that they enjoyed the day, too.  I must thank Nigel Duncan for organising venue, lunches, coffee etc, and Linda Jotham and Marcus Soanes also of City Law School for their kind support; and Edwin from IT for his outstanding setup.  My thanks to SLS for their funding of the day’s activities.  My most grateful thanks to the speakers who all gave their time generously in support of the event — Roger Kneebone for an inspiring keynote from his work on simulation, interdisciplinarity and medical education, Queenie Lai for coming all the way from Hong Kong to show us her work on the Client Pitch Project, Nigel Hudson and Julie Mould-Cook for giving us insights into how a SC project could be set up and the work of a SC within it, Karen Barton for answering many questions from her fund of experience on maintaining a SC project, Freda Grealy and Rory O’Boyle on the use of SCs in professional development in Ireland.  Without you all, nothing.

I’m hoping to organise a sister event at the PEARL (Profession, Education and Regulation in Law) Centre, ANU College of Law in Canberra, last week of July, and another perhaps later this year or early next at Osgoode in Toronto.  More to follow on that.  And, after two hot days in London and weekend work, it was then off up Dunmore with Sam, who always tells me I should get out more.



  1. [1]Though I’ve observed that often enough staff apply this to innovative approaches, rarely to conventional curricula.  So, the argument goes, let’s not force attractive innovation on students, but of course let’s force them to attend toxic overdoses of tedious lectures and dull tutorials…
  2. [2]For an excellent response to TEF, see the Response of the Association of National Teaching Fellows.  And note that the National Union of Students voted to disengage from the TEF and boycott the National Student Survey.

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