Empirical Research and Clinical Education

The following is an email sent over a law clinic listserve from Professor Amy Applegate, Clinical Professor of Law at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, and is reproduce here with her permission:

Dear All:  I was quite intrigued by this chain of e-mails, and am following up on Judith Welch Wagner’s suggestion about engaging in more in-depth, rigorous research, perhaps conducted by the Law School Survey of Student Engagement  (LSSSE).

I wanted to bring to everyone’s attention the attached article written by Carole Silver (and two others) here at Indiana University Maurer School of Law.  Carole teaches one of the sections of our first year Legal Professions course and is the Director LSSSE.  Carole is also presenting at the 2011 Conference on the Future of the Law School Curriculum in mid-June – she is a presenter on the Sunday Plenary about Forces from Outside the Academy.  [Ok, I can’t help myself:  The AALS Conference on Clinical Legal Education, which will be held as part of the AALS midyear meeting this year in June in Seattle, will overlap with the curriculum conference, so I encourage you, if you haven’t yet registered for the conference, to do so now.  You may access the conference brochures and registration materials here].

I recommend that you read the attached article, as it presents empirical research that appears to support the value and importance of clinical legal education. 

Here are some of the highlights:

At the bottom of page 15: 

Their “findings suggest that clinical experience may enhance learning legal ethics, but more research is necessary to confirm the direct relationship.”

At page 21:

“[S]tudents with a clinical experience, whether or not they also had paid legal work experience, reported higher positive gains across each item of development in Table 5.”

Table 5 items were:  Building positive relationships with your future clients; Deepening your capacity for moral reasoning; Preparing you to handle the stresses of law practice; Strengthening your commitment to serving the public good; Acting with integrity in both personal and professional settings

“Interestingly, paid legal work does not seem to yield the same gains. We cannot explain whether this is because of a difference in goals of the practical experience (educating the student versus serving the client’s interests), the scope of the work shared with the student, or another reason, but the data provide a strong endorsement of clinical legal education for purposes beyond its particular goals.”

At page 21-22

Again, quoting directly (emphasis supplied by me):

III. Conclusion

Law schools serve as launching pad and gatekeeper for the legal profession. They answer to disparate interests, including students, alumni, employers, regulators , courts and the public. In helping students make the transition to professional roles, schools need support for evaluating what works well and what would benefit from additional attention. The data described here offers some insight in this regard. But the data only begin to uncover how law students gain insight into their professional identity and purpose. Generally, these findings point to the importance of law school classes for effective learning about legal ethics, and also to the role of clinical legal education as a means for deepening the effectiveness of these lessons.

Findings suggests clinical experiences seem to further students’ learning about professional identity and purpose in settings that are experienced by all students, but in order to understand why clinical education furthers learning with regard to the third apprenticeship, additional research is necessary. Do these gains relate to the real-world aspect of clinical work? Or is it the more intense and intimate faculty-student interaction of clinics that yields gains? Do students appreciate the lessons of their classes more after having a clinical course because they are more experienced law students, or would a first-year clinical experience also yield these gains and deepen learning throughout law school? Are the benefits of clinical education common to all clinical experiences, whether live-client or simulation, and regardless of the substantive focus of the clinic? How can law schools capitalize on the clinical experience in other settings? And what explains the differences between clinical experiences and paid legal work?67

Significant differences in the responses of 3Ls and 1Ls may suggest the ways in which law school delivers value to students, but more work is necessary to determine whether this is the case. Data reported on in this article did not follow the same student from year one through year three, and differences in cohorts may be related to factors other than the experiences that arise from law school. Related to this issue is the possibility of differences among student populations. Finally, how do the institutional characteristics of law schools affect learning about professional identity and purpose? Understanding these issues will help law schools address the particular dynamics influencing their students’ experiences.

Aside from questions for future research, however, our work offers important lessons about the way students develop a sense of professional identity and purpose. Students indicated that the most effective setting for learning legal ethics was their professional responsibility class. This was true for students who had no clinical or paid legal work experience as well as for those who had one or both of these experiences. We only can suggest why this is the case; the most likely explanation relates to student expectations. Students expect to learn about legal ethics in professional responsibility; they do not expect legal ethics to be a topic of discussion in corporations, civil procedure or in non-classroom experiences.

Carnegie’s message of the importance of intentionality and explicitness provides the crucial insight for law schools to move beyond this silo-effect. Law schools can make additional settings and experiences relevant to gains in the third apprenticeship by explaining to students the relationship of their lessons and experiences to the issues of professional identity and purpose. That is, schools must help students “connect the dots.” To do this, law schools must acknowledge and embrace opportunities to teach to the larger lessons of professional identity and purpose in settings other than those aimed at legal ethics, whether or not these opportunities arise in a credit-generating setting. This may require faculty to educate themselves about what happens outside of their classrooms. Doctrinal faculty may need to learn more about their law school’s clinics and externships (and vice versa) and all faculty may need to learn more about what their students experience in their paid legal work and pro bono activities, so that each of these “alternative” activities and settings may be more thoughtfully drawn into classroom discussions and teaching on substantive law. In order to help students make the transition to becoming lawyers, law schools and faculty must move beyond the borders of their control. The goal of a more expansive approach is to situate professionalism in its integrative role, outlined in Educating Lawyers, and allow it to provide a framework for the entire law school experience.

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2 Responses

  1. Great post. I would be interested in hearing about specific actions law schools/professors/administrators are taking to help students understand their motivations toward becoming a lawyer, whether anyone is doing empirical research on this or how well-being relates to professionalism, and and whether anyone is basing clinical courses around these and related themes. We are looking at this at both Duke Law (a credit class I teach on well-being in the law), Emory Law (empirical study of values orientation among 1Ls), and in the positive psychology masters program at Penn.

    Dan Bowling
    Senior Lecturing Fellow
    Duke Law
    Lecturer
    UPenn (Positive Psychology)
    bowling@law.duke.edu

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