Monthly Archives: January 2014

Legal Education: The Road from Socratic to Problem-based to Work-based Learning (Part 2)

This is the second of a three part series of posts about the road legal education has taken from Socratic to problem-based to work-based learning. It is a personal and professional account of my experience since entering the world of legal education, something which I will be expanding upon in my presentation at the Centre for Legal Education Conference 2014

Last week I described my experience at law school during the old Law Society Finals and how the Legal Practice Course (LPC) rose out of its ashes. This week I want to look at what was the aim of the LPC, whether it succeeded, and some of the problems with problem-based learning.

If the Law Society Finals were closely associated with Socratic teaching, then the LPC became synonymous with problem-based learning. The change in learning methodology was meant to be one from communicating content to one where students would resolve problems and issues, developing professional skills through practice which would better prepare them for Day 1 in the office. Instead of lectures and tutorials (both centred around a lecturer or a tutor as the focal point of learning) we would have Large Group Sessions (LGSs) and Small Group Sessions (SGSs) designed to be ‘student centred’. The new course was supposed to be less about preparing the students for the final written exam and more about preparing them for practice. Skills such as interviewing, negotiation, writing, drafting and advocacy would be taught in context using case studies wherever possible in an attempt to bring practice into the classroom. In this way we would move from the abstract to the context, mimicking the working office in terms of the skills applied in practice.

Initially, the reaction and the results were very good. Students felt that they were indeed acquiring and practising skills rather than simply being prepared for a memory test of knowledge and procedure as a way of limiting the numbers proceeding to the next stage of vocational training. The new intake of tutors required to staff the LPC were mainly fresh from practice and brought with them an energy (ironically drawn partly from the relief of finally escaping practice) and a willingness to innovate and try new ways of teaching. Students fed off this energy and welcomed the ability of these new tutors to draw on recent experience in practice, believing that they were being mentored and tutored in the first stage of their training contract as opposed to the last stage of their academic studies. Indeed that is one principle that sticks in my mind from that time, the principle espoused by Phil Knott of Nottingham Law School that the LPC should be looked at as Year 1 of a three year training contract and not the last hurdle to be cleared before entering practice.

Many of us LPC course designers embarked on this journey to try and re-create real life experience in the classroom with gusto. We designed case studies built around problems, cases, transactions that we had ourselves encountered recently in practice. By doing this we tried to create what I would call the grand illusion of practice in the classroom. Working on ‘real life’ problems, advising ‘real life’ clients, in ‘real life’ surroundings. Mock interviews were held. Some LPC providers took this to it’s fullest extent by hiring actors to play the roles of the clients. Instead of plenary feedback in SGSs, students were required to solve a problem and present their advice to a client (the tutor). Mock trials/hearings were held where the tutor would play the role of the District Judge.

In Scotland, the Glasgow Graduate School of Law at the University of Strathclyde pioneered the use of electronic simulated transactions with their SIMPLE Project. When I moved from Nottingham Law School to what is now the University of Law, I was asked to design, implement and monitor a pilot on the LPC using SIMPLE. The results were extremely positive. I ran the pilot using Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) students who had no prior knowledge or experience of practice. The pilot involved a conveyancing transaction (Property Law being my specialism) and although the students had studied Land Law they had little idea of the practical and procedural steps involved in conveyancing. We supplied the students with text resources and iTutorials, nothing else other than the resource of their ‘supervising partner’ (me) at the other end of the integrated email facility. With very few problems or misunderstandings, the students (8 groups in 4 Centres located in different parts of England) managed to exchange contracts and were well on their way to completing the transaction before the deadline for the end of the pilot. Such was the interest and enjoyment of those pilot students that many of them asked if they could continue in their own time and try to complete the transaction after the pilot deadline despite other work commitments that were pending at the time. All in all it was a valiant attempt to take legal education to the next level, to train and equip learners with professional skills as well as knowledge so that they hit the ground running when they joined their firms.

But were there any problems with problem-based learning? Well in a word, yes. Teaching professional skills in a classroom environment is extremely resource-heavy particularly if the teaching methodology has not changed and is still Socratic or based on delivery of content and formative assessment by tutors. It can be made less resource-heavy if the 3 Ps of ‘Practice, Practice, Practice’ are implemented or if P2P (Peer-to-Peer) formative assessment is utilised. The latter incidentally encourages collaborative learning too.

There is also a problem with problem-based learning that is centred on all the student cohort having the same experience, resolving the same problem, working on a finite number of problems or, worse still, only one problem tackled by everyone at the same time. My experience in designing and running an e-Portfolio pilot on the LPC brought to light a huge number of issues concerning the LPC and problem-based learning in particular. It is worthy of further investigation and explanation which is why I shall leave that topic for another blogpost hopefully in the near future.

What I have found with the LPC in particular is that old habits die hard. The energy and willingness to try new teaching methods at the inception has dissipated largely due to restrictions imposed by Operations Directors and Managers. Without constant innovation, conservatism creeps in. The LPC, generally speaking, has in my mind stagnated. My experience is that LGSs have turned back into lectures and SGSs have reverted to preparing students for the assessment. The LPC has reached the end of the line, it was good while it lasted but is it really fit for purpose in an age of Legal Service Providers, ABSs and extended rights for non-Solicitors/Barristers post-Legal Services Act? I think not. It’s time for a change and a different, fresh approach to teaching and learning professional skills. Work-based learning has increased in popularity recently for a number of reasons and in the final posting of this series I’ll be looking at what this means for the current system of problem-based learning in the legal education classroom and where we might go from here.


Legal Education: The Road from Socratic to Problem-based to Work-based Learning (Part 1)

This is the first of a three part series of posts about the road legal education has taken from Socratic to problem-based to work-based learning. It is a personal and professional account of my experience since entering the world of legal education, something which i will be expanding upon in my presentation at the Centre for Legal Education Conference 2014

By way of background, I am a career lawyer. By that I mean that I was destined or rather guided to be a lawyer. I went straight from secondary school to the University of Leicester where I graduated with an LL.B, I then went straight to the College of Law (as it then was) where I passed the Law Society Finals, on to articles, and then two years later qualified as a Solicitor spending the next five years in practice as a Commercial Property lawyer.

Students 'learning' by writing down notes dictated by a lecturer

Students ‘learning’ by writing down notes dictated by a lecturer

My experience at the College of Law in Chester studying the Law Society Finals was…well, functional. I still recall turning up on the first day to be handed six or eight cardboard box folders into which I had to gather lots and lots of paper gapped handouts called ‘Core Material’. The teaching and learning methodology (although I doubt whether anyone at the College had even thought about it in such terms) was that students attended lectures at which a tutor would stand at the front of the class and speak, communicating the information that was missing from the gapped handout. There were no questions allowed, no questions asked, no problems to solve, no challenges to be met, no discussion, no talking (other than the tutor), nothing. Just students writing down notes as quickly as possible to keep pace with the tutor’s dictation. A register was passed around at the beginning of the lecture for students to sign, a crude method by which attendance was enforced. I dare say that one or two signatures were, ahem, ‘proxied’ on behalf of the occasional student who inadvertently was feeling a little ‘unwell’ shall we say that day. It was functional, dull, and as far removed as you could get from hands-on work in practice. It was secondhand learning, learning how to practice by listening to someone who had practised and often quite a long time ago.

The lectures were meant to support tutorials that we had to attend. In the tutorials we were given problems to solve. These were practical problems in the sense that they were situations in the context of scenarios to which we had to find the correct answer or procedure. In reality they were little more than memory tests of the knowledge we were supposed to have picked up by attendance in the lectures. There was no collaborative learning that I can remember, in fact discussion in small groups was frowned upon, it was more question and answer, a crude development of the Socratic methodology of the lectures. It was also preparation for the exam, an exam set centrally by the Law Society of which the College of Law was its preferred and sole provider of pre-qualification training. If you didn’t attend the tutorials (and isn’t that term telling, ‘tutorial’, a session based around the tutor) then you wouldn’t have the notes that you could then memorise in order to answer the same sort of questions in the exam itself. As a matter of fact, while we’re on the subject of the Law Society Finals Exam at that time, I also distinctly recall one of the first things that was said to me and my class in one of our first lectures: “Take a look at the person on your right and the person on your left. One of you three will not be here by the end of this course. There is a 40% failure rate so you better start working, now”. Anything said about personal or professional development? Anything said about preparation for practice? Anything said about transferable skills? No, just fear. Fear of the exam, fear of failure.

Typical Deed of Conveyance which Law Society Finals required you to draft from memory

Typical Deed of Conveyance which Law Society Finals required you to draft from memory

To be fair, we were given case studies. Those remained in their cardboard box files throughout the course. Never referred to, never used. A shame, because I remember a question in the Conveyancing exam in which we were required to draft a Deed of Conveyance from scratch ie blank piece of paper, no precedent, and without having practiced the skill in either a lecture or a tutorial. For the record I have never, either in the 7 years I was in practice or the 20+ years I have been in legal education, ever and I mean EVER had to draft a conveyance on a blank sheet of paper. So that prepared me well, didn’t it!

It came as no surprise that in 1990 the Law Society approved a new training scheme in which the vocational skills required to be a Solicitor were to be emphasised. The Law Society Finals were to be replaced by a Legal Practice Course (LPC) which was to be delivered not just by the College of Law but by the College and new universities (formerly polytechnics) too. Rather than one central exam set by the Law Society, each institution would be responsible for setting it’s own assessment. As can be seen from this article The Independent (21 Aug 1992) the move was not universally welcomed. However, the intention was clear, to create a course that was less about preparing for the exam and more about preparing for practice. As mentioned in The Independent article, the aim of the scheme was to ensure that those entering the profession were competent to deal with clients’ changing needs. The intention was to give trainee solicitors (a term that was to replace the rather antiquated ‘articled clerk’ of which I was in one of the last cohorts) embarking on their training contracts ‘the necessary knowledge and skills to undertake appropriate tasks under proper supervision’. It was therefore clear that students on the new LPC would have to learn and practice those skills on the actual course itself if they were to be capable of then carrying out those tasks under supervision on Day 1. The move from Socratic teaching to Problem-based Learning had begun and in the second of this series of postings we shall consider how well it fared.

Book deal signed!

Really pleased to announce that I have signed a book deal with to write a new Land Law text aimed at the LL.B and GDL market.

The work will be a new type of text, concise yet principled, with context and practical application to the fore. There will be practical examples and reflective questions which will allow the student to branch out for a more rounded learning experience, picking up on developments in the teaching area.

What is really exciting is that the template will bring into play the possibility of an eBook version which carefully utilises additional resources. Contrary to people’s opinion, I am definitely not anti-paper even though I have personally been paperless for over 3 years now. I believe in using the best media for the best learning experience in the best learning environment and in today’s terminology one of the major strengths of paper is that it is an ‘offline’ resource that in it’s correct format is very portable. However, supporting that strength by blending it with electronic media with the potential to point out to external resources is an exciting prospect.

I am really looking forward to working with David Stott and Sue Hall who I have known for a number of years. They have great experience in publishing, particularly in the field of legal education, and they are putting together a really good team of writers who will complement each other in the production of this latest series. Personally, I feel really excited by this project’s potential and I’m delighted to be involved. Work starts soon with a target publication date in Spring 2015.

Centre for Legal Education Conference (7&8 February 2014)

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be presenting at the Centre for Legal Education’s Annual Conference to be held at Nottingham Trent University on the 7th and 8th of February.

The main theme for the conference is ‘The Value of Legal Education’ and I hope to be appearing twice; firstly with Jon Harman on the Friday presenting ‘Learning Design in Action’ and then flying solo on the Saturday with a presentation about the value of class place learning compared with work place learning.

My solo presentation will be an account of the personal and professional journey that I have taken in the study, practice and teaching of law over the past 32 years. A story that begins in the 1980s with ‘articled clerks’ , continues through the ’90s and the rise of vocational training, on through the ‘noughties’ and then the ‘twenty-teens’ and the current debate surrounding the value of legal education. By considering the disruptive influences of economic circumstances, technology and the Legal Services Act in particular I hope to provide an interesting insight to the potential future of not only the profession of law but also the future of legal education.

Over the course of the next few weeks leading up to the conference, I will be posting a short series on this blog about the rise and fall of the Legal Practice Course. It will bring to light some of the issues about the respective values of class place and work place learning. I will be looking at the development of Problem-based Learning in the context of the LPC, whether it can truly replicate the experience of being in the work place, and what alternatives there are to the current class place learning delivered by many providers.

Stay tuned!

The Legal Edlines is out!!

This week’s edition of The Legal Edlines is out! Click on the link below and then subscribe for automatic weekly updates:

The Legal Edlines is my weekly ePaper delivering a round-up of all the news in legal education. It’s a very easy way of keeping up to date with developments and contains useful links which you can explore for further content.