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.

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