Experiential education has been a hot topic ever since I began studying law in 2011, although it was most definitely an important conversation before that too.
My law school has placed particular emphasis on it and Osgoode Hall Law School’s clinical programs are, in my view, one of the school’s strongest selling points.
So I was slightly surprised recently when I heard some strong arguments against this pedagogical approach given experiential education’s widespread appeal in my daily environment. At a recent event, some panellists expressed concern that experiential opportunities were too abundant in law school today and argued (in different ways) for a continued emphasis on theory-based legal education.
Although the speakers viewed many points about law very differently, on this they seemed to agree: what you have to know about the day-to-day of being a lawyer you will learn when you begin working — after law school. What you don’t get another chance to do is learn, in-depth, about so many areas of law.
Shocked, I continued to ponder this argument well after the event came to a close. Would law students really benefit from more theoretical learning? Do we not have enough as it is? Should we be savouring every moment in the classroom rather than dying to get out of it? Is experiential education actually hindering our development as future lawyers?
While I unequivocally support the move toward experiential education in law, I can see the strengths of the arguments in opposition. Law school is a unique time to indulge in discussion of the law with the guidance of experts. And it’s a chance to learn about any and all kinds of law. The variety is astounding.
Many practitioners have told me they don’t have time for such learning anymore because their caseload is just too great. Indeed the opportunity to be a student is short-lived for many. We will be working for the majority of our lives, so perhaps studying should be enjoyed while it lasts rather than wished away.
Learning in a classroom is also the time to really wrestle with new ideas and understand how the law developed. And you can do this without a timeline or a client’s case depending on it. Before you can apply the law to facts, you have to first comprehend what exactly it means in the first place.
I understand and agree with the benefits of learning in a classroom. Being a student in the traditional sense is an absolutely unique opportunity. However, I don’t believe experiential education limits the potential of any of that. And given the practical nature of the law, how it is applied on the ground is of vital importance to the development of future lawyers. This kind of learning deserves to take a much bigger role in legal education than it currently does in most schools.
This view may not be surprising coming from me, as I spend a great deal of time in the Office of Experiential Education at my school. I’ve become well versed in the language of experiential education working for an organization whose mission is to offer students practical experience.
But I’m not simply toeing the line when I say this; I believe it, all other affiliations aside.
Since first year, I’ve participated in different intensive programs and volunteered with several clinics and organizations. I do so because my first experience outside the classroom in 1L convinced me to stay in law school. I came to see what practice was really like and how diverse it could be. I realized what I was working so hard for.
Exposure outside the bubble also allowed me to develop skills that are simply not teachable — the ability to interview a client, for example.
In my case, I was asking about delicate topics such as torture and domestic violence. In those moments, it didn’t matter how much I knew about the refugee definition, or the Convention Against Torture, or the degree to which domestic violence would be taken into account when determining custody. I had to learn the balance between sensitivity and precision, empathy and professionalism. No matter how expert my teacher, I had to learn that one on my own.
On top of these interpersonal skills, I also had the chance to try my hand at drafting practical legal documents, from mediation plans to applications for judicial review. There is no doubt about the utility of those skills.
Now why couldn’t I just have waited until I finished law school to learn those things? Technically, I could have.
However, those experiences inform my understanding of the law as I continue to study. I grasp legal concepts to a much greater degree now than I did before. As well, through these internships and volunteer placements, I sampled different practice areas as well as work environments without committing entirely. It either affirmed or refuted my interest in an area and informed me as to how to move forward.
Most importantly perhaps, now I feel ready to enter the professional world.
Experiential education is so important to legal education that I envision a practical requirement in a JD program to take the place of articling. I don’t think it will ever completely replace theoretical-based learned, nor should it. But the room for growth of this innovative form of learning is immense and should be encouraged.