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Integrating the Profession in Experiential Legal Education

Experiential legal education has been the subject of numerous papers, conferences, and innovative curriculum changes in the United States in the past decade. In October 2012 the first National Symposium on Experiential Education in Law was held at Northeastern University in Boston. I attended that symposium, and came away inspired by the topics and discussions.

In June 2014 the Second National Symposium on Experiential Education in Law took place at Elon University in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Alliance for Experiential Learning in Law and Elon University School of Law hosted the symposium. To my regret, I was unable to attend this time, but reading the papers being released from the symposium help ease my regret.

My focus will be on Part VI of the papers from the symposium, The Role of Practitioners in Experiential Education (all the papers may be found online). This topic appeals to me because of my belief that the legal profession and the academy should have a much closer relationship in Canada (see my paper The Great Disconnect: Reconnecting the Academy with the Profession, Alberta Law Review 01/2014; 51(4):819).

The Current Role of Practitioners in US Law Schools

The working group which wrote the paper had the following goal:

Legal education can benefit from thoughtful integration with the legal profession. If legal educators better understand current and emerging needs and expectations of the legal profession along with trends in the business and practice of law, the academy will be better able to prepare students for successful entry into the profession. If practicing lawyers better understand current pedagogies and trends in legal education, along with the challenges and constraints faced by law schools, the profession will be better able to advise and partner with legal educators to ensure that the profession’s reasonable needs and expectations are met.

Based on a survey of US associate deans, the paper sets out the current roles of practitioners in law schools. Those roles were the common ones that we have all seen for some decades, including taking part in simulations, coaching mooting teams, participating in panel discussions, supervising pro bono projects, serving on advisory boards, mentoring, and teaching.

The survey also asked associate deans to describe a successful curricular innovation that makes use of practitioners at their law school. They responded with mentoring, skills training, and simulation-related activities. The associate deans were then asked to list obstacles or concerns about increased use of practitioners, and responded with the difficulty of monitoring teaching quality, and whether practitioners had the necessary teaching skills.

Innovative Ideas and Emerging Trends

  • Using a team of adjuncts to create “skill labs” to supplement upper year doctrinal courses.
  • Preceptor programs where students are paired with a mentor lawyer in first year maintain that relationship throughout their time in law school. The more successful programs devote extensive resources to maintain the relationship.
  • Co-op type programs such as that of Northeastern Law School in Boston, where students spend entire terms in a practice environment.
  • Washington & Lee has made third year almost entirely experiential with “two-week litigation and transactional skill immersions, a client contact clinic, service learning, and a series of courses built around complex simulations.” An advisory board of practitioners, judges, faculty, and outside law faculty assists the school.
  • A strong trend is setting up incubator centres for new law graduates. Fifteen states now have incubators or residency programs, and the list is growing.

Conclusion and the Canadian Context

The paper concludes by calling for

… a more strategic and purposeful collaboration with the profession. As a starting point, law schools should consider conducting an inventory to assess the level and effectiveness of current integration with the bar. Schools need to involve thoughtful members of the profession in this assessment. The goal should be to identify and then adopt means for achieving curricular goals through ongoing inclusion of practitioners in teaching and design.

While Canadian and US schools have in the past utilized practitioners in similar ways, the US has moved ahead with new ways of integrating practitioners into the academy. Skill labs, co-op programs, mentoring programs, and incubators are all ideas our law schools should be examining. Who will be the first to lead?

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