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.

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