Taking the Next Step With Experiential Learning

Experiential learning was placed on the agenda for North American law schools when Educating Lawyers by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching was published in 2007 (commonly called the Carnegie Report).

The Carnegie Report called for law schools to integrate “the three apprenticeships” of legal education into their curricula: theory, ethics, and practical skills. Over the past decade, many US law schools have taken up the challenge.

Canadian law schools have been slower to respond, but momentum is building for the integration of practical skills into the curriculum. A listing of experiential learning opportunities in Canadian law schools was published by Gemma Smyth, Samantha Hale, and Neil Gold of Windsor in 2016 (“Clinical and Experiential Learning Programs in Canadian Law Schools” presented at the annual conference of the Association for Canadian Clinical Legal Education). This important paper updated and substantially expanded my own paper on this topic in 2012 (“The State of Experiential Education in Canadian Law Schools” Man. L.J. Vol 37(1)).

In their detailed research, Smyth et al. have shown that many individual law school courses have at least one component of experiential learning, in addition to the traditional clinical courses offered by the majority of law schools. The experiential opportunities are both credit and non-credit, and include clinical, simulations, external placements, and more.

As many readers know, Lakehead’s law school has completely adopted the Carnegie model, and as a result of the skills learned by their students, they are not required to article. Osgoode Hall has a requirement for at least one experiential learning course in order to graduate. If you look at sheer numbers, Osgoode (38) and Toronto (25) have the most courses and other opportunities with experiential components. At the other end of the scale, Moncton has none.

In the US, the explosive growth in experiential learning led to the formation in 2011 of the Alliance for Experiential Learning in Law. With membership from well over 100 US law schools, the Alliance’s ultimate goal is “to ensure that law graduates are ready to practice with a full complement of skills and ethical and social values necessary to serve clients and the public interest, now and in the future.”

The Alliance has held three national symposiums on experiential learning in law, with the latest taking place last June in New York. More details can be found here. I attended the first symposium, and found the content and the presentations to be first rate.

It’s time for Canadian law schools to take the next step in experiential learning to improve the learning experience of our students. I believe that experiential learning, paired with theory, deepens the understanding of what a student learns in the classroom and will create a better lawyer.

We have much to learn from each other (and other countries) in experiential pedagogy and best practices. If law schools are going to provide experiential learning to prepare students for a career in law, they will want to provide the best. Efforts in this direction will no doubt have the support of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the Canadian Bar Association, which have been urging law schools to do so.

I propose regular Canadian symposiums on experiential learning in law, on an annual or biennial basis. There are some potential organizers: the Council of Canadian Law Deans, the Canadian Association of Law Teachers, the Association for Canadian Clinical Legal Education, and the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, one or two individual law school, or a combination of some of these groups. Another option is to create a new organization for this purpose.

It’s time to come together and up our game in experiential legal education. Who will come forward to get it moving?

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