More practice needed in legal education

Larry Donnelly, NUI Galway, via their websiteThe title of this post comes from the headline in an interesting and provocative article by Larry Donnelly of NUI Galway (pictured left) in Monday’s Irish Times. His core argument is that the preparation of students for law practice should play a greater role in legal education in Ireland:

Historically, law study at third-level institutions in Ireland and in other common law jurisdictions was theory-based and took place exclusively in lecture halls. Law, however, is both an academic and a vocational discipline. Accordingly, law schools in every other common law jurisdiction have embraced the role of practice in legal education, but Irish law schools still lag far behind.

I entirely agree. Clinical and experiential learning centers on providing students with hands-on opportunities to understand how the law works in the real world. Along with the legal skills traditionally taught by law schools (legal research, legal analysis, and sometimes the ability to engage with policy and theoretical literature), the modern law degree should also seek to inculcate written and oral communication skills, interview skills, team-work, legal drafting, negotiation, advocacy, case management and practice management. 2007 saw the foundation of two very exciting Law Schools committed to this appraoch. The School of Law in the University of York began life with a bang, offering a completely progressive, clinical and experiential undergraduate curriculum, with problem-based learning modules centred on what they call the student law firm. The curriculum at School of Law at the University of California, Irvine self-consciously focuses on preparation for practice in the 21st century. Other successful start-ups, such as Bond in Australia and Northumbria in the UK, have built their programmes around legal skills as well as legal doctrine. Indeed, many established law schools the world over are in the process of adding important clinical elements to their curricula: the market leader in the US is the new third year program in the School of Law in the University of Washington and Lee in Virginia (even staid Harvard has made some moves in this direction). Moreover, the importance of this kind of development has already been appreciated in Ireland: NUI Galway has a Director of Clinical Legal Education, UCC established a degree in clinical legal education in 2004, whilst UCD has just announced a similar degree. Unsurprisingly, therefore, at the recent Legal Education Symposium, the most exciting plenary was on the topic of Law Schools and Clinical Legal Education, whilst the session on Experiential Learning was well attended and provoked lively debate.

There are many opportunities to combine a focus on social justice with clinical education. For example Oxford and Queen Mary have established pro bono legal research groups, to provide pro bono legal research (by academic staff, and by students under academic supervision for whom it forms part of their coursework) to assist in the preparation of legal and policy research and submissions for practitioners who are themselves acting on a pro bono basis. Several UK law schools (eg, Essex, Liverpool, Strathclyde) have gone further, and fused social justice principles with their clinical ethos to establish pro bono clinics, usually in association with local law firms, to provide free legal advice and assistance to members of the public who would otherwise be unable to afford it. Because these clinics are integrated into undergraduate clinical degrees, this is a rather more formal provision of legal services than is currently undertaken by the Free Legal Advice Centre’s student societies (eg, TCD, UCC). Clinic in this sense is a big thing in US Law Schools, and it is one important and tangible means by which clinical legal education can have instant and significant real-world impact.

To make these kinds of developments a reality in Ireland would require one of two things. Either a start-up law school should commit to this right from the start (along the lines of York or Irvine) or it should be retro-fitted in as full a way as possible into existing curricula. Either way, a Law School undertaking the planning and development of a cutting-edge clinical curriculum would need to work very closely with the practicing professions; and they in turn would need to support the school not only in terms of skills advice and curriculum design but also financially. Moreover, given that it is a significant undertaking, the School would need to appoint a Director of Clinical Legal Education at Professor level to oversee the development of the school’s commitment to a clinical and experiential curriculum. In these straitened economic times, firms are unlikely to have the money, and universities are unlikely to be able to make the necessary hires. A full and complete commitment to the development and integration of clinical skills in the university law school curriculum in Ireland is likely to be quite a few years away yet. Donnelly takes this point on board:

Of course, any change or modification in the direction of legal education in Ireland must reflect economic and marketplace realities. The professions have been hit hard by the recession, and many would argue that the most apt reform of legal education would be to limit the number of law students. But there will always be a need for some lawyers, and those graduates with practical skills and “real world” experience are best-equipped to enter the professions.

As soon as it can be managed, therefore, Law Schools in Irish Universities should move towards integrating clinical skills into their existing doctrinal programmes. It will make for better Law Schools, for better graduates, and for better lawyers.