Rethinking Continuing Professional Development

Experiential learning can deliver more practical, lasting benefits to participants, argues John Hollander

John Hollander

Learning by doing trumps learning by listening. Big time. And it is worth the effort. So why is it the exception and not the rule in legal continuing professional development (CPD)?

Indeed, the perceived drawbacks of experiential learning are really advantages in disguise.

The CPD Formula: Same Old, Same Old
You have likely attended CPD that fits this formula. A well-known leader in the field or a panel of such leaders talks about recent cases or regulatory advances. What is wrong with this picture?

Simply this: lectures do not deliver information efficiently. Delivery suggests appreciation of the significance of that information. Lawyers are skilled at reading the law; what they need is the experience of working it -- to test how it applies to clients and cases.

That is where experiential learning succeeds. As championed by Osgoode Professional Development and The Advocates’ Society, this method challenges participants to try out the analysis and techniques discussed. It offers the privacy of the seminar room, the opportunity to watch colleagues make missteps, and ultimately, to savour success as each masters the subject matter.

Perceived drawbacks of experiential learning
Experiential learning has advantages. Better engagement leads to better comprehension. Diverse needs are addressed, formats are flexible, and so on. Now, let’s examine the perceived negatives.

  1. Experiential learning only applies to technical/practical subjects, not to substantive law.
    You have two rooms for a CPD session. Room 1 has a talking head presenting the law, accompanied by slides. Room 2 has a table with several colleagues and a team leader. Each participant has read the relevant cases or analysis. In Room 2, participants work through fact scenarios to test the subject matter. They discuss the limitations of the rules, and test ideas about how it applies. Which room would you value more?

  2. It takes more time to prepare.
    Did the presenter prepare a paper for the presentation? If so, the only major difference will be whether the paper is transmitted to participants to be read before or after the presentation. Fact situations are not onerous to prepare. The presenter has likely thought of several while becoming expert on the subject.

  3. It only works for small groups.
    Granted, a lecture theatre is hardly the best place to have participants group together for team-led discussions. There are better venues to allow for small group meetings. In a big room, voices from one group may leak to the next, distracting participants. Soon they get used to the noise, and that one loud bunch learns to tone it down a bit. In any room, whether big or small, presenters should accommodate those with impairments.

  4. It requires too many expert team leaders.
    Not so. You need one expert and many team leaders. Team leaders are not experts but should be familiar with the subject as part of their practices. They only need to know their material better than do their participants. They should already have experienced what the participants will soon discuss.
    Often, team leaders learn more than do the participants. Team leaders must concentrate throughout the session, not just when it is their turn. Because they focus on the participants, they become better at attentive listening. There is no shortage of volunteers for this role. The expert presenter can oversee multiple teams to ensure they progress as planned. And team leaders may be less intimidating than are the expert presenters.

  5. It does not assure all participants of the same quality experience.
    Teams can follow their own leads, pursing ideas to conclusions raised by the participants. So long as they apply the techniques or substantive law, why do they each need to learn exactly the same lessons? Smaller groups permit flexibility, such as teaming participants according to seniority, experience or specific areas of interest. Team leaders can offer suggestions and content to adapt the session to these variations.

  6. It forces participants to participate.
    Not everyone enjoys the spotlight. There is nowhere to hide in an experiential seminar at a table, which takes some participants out of their comfort zones. The organizers need to be aware of their audience and make that space safe. The Vegas Rule should apply: what happens in the room/table stays there. Besides, the other participants are probably making similar mistakes.

We must all leave our comfort zone on occasion. It is best if we develop some armour through this controlled experience. This makes us better lawyers.

  1. Planning the logistics is more difficult and time-consuming.

Sure, it may take longer to find volunteer team leaders than it does to appoint a single senior presenter. And it takes logistics planning to get people assigned to rooms or tables with the best team leaders. The quality of the experience outweighs the effort to plan. It is rewarded by the boost in value to the participants, and therefore to the organizers. And it gets easier each time.

The main negatives of experiential learning can be overcome with imagination and diligence: the strengths of many lawyers. Experiential learning is better at delivering value to the lawyers who attend. This is appreciated by all participants, both team leaders and attendees alike, and is rewarded by improved analytical and technical skills and by member satisfaction.

What’s not to like?

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