The Language of Experiential Learning

Here’s the note on terminology promised in Monday’s post.

For CLEA’s in-progress Building on Best Practices:  The Walls Are Coming Down book project my co-editor Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Iare considering whether to include a section on terminology.   At least one effort to provide some consistency in usage is currently percolating, initiated by the Alliance for Experiential Education coordinated by Northeastern Law School.  An Alliance committee led by Elon’s Cindy Adcock is discussing initial draft recommendations on terminology in the hope of encouraging consistent usage.  Convincing schools to adopt any such recommendations could, of course, be a monumental task.  If accomplished, however, it would go a long way towards helping prospective students compare curricular opportunities.  And it could help prospective employers evaluate law graduates’ legal education.

My thoughts on what’s behind these initiatives and on the terminology conundrum:

The current downturn in law school enrollments, still bleak job prospects and changes in the structure of the legal profession has been accompanied by an explosion of interest in experiential learning, as law schools respond to the call to graduate practice ready professionals and seek to justify the three-year law school.  Law schools are experimenting with a wide range of experiential learning structures both for offerings involving real lawyering  — shameless self promotion moment: see my co-authored article Re-vision Quest:  A Law School Guide  to Designing Experiential Courses Involving Real Lawyering — and simulation based efforts.   Labels used for such efforts have proliferated and consistency of usage seems nowhere to be found.

Among the labels:

Clinic:  Perhaps the term with the longest pedigree and most consistency, but no shortage of unresolved issues,

  • Must a clinic involve an individual client?
  • If an effort focuses on tasks like lobbying or community education  that don’t require a J.D. and bar admission, should it qualify as a clinic?

For instance, should Street Law,  a community education effort, qualify as a clinic?  Schools that say “yes” include my own University of Washington, Georgetown,  where Street Law originated, UCLA and many others.   But Street Law is also offered as a  for-credit course not qualifying as a clinic, a part of a pro bono requirement, or a volunteer student activity.

My own program defines clinic expansively, in an effort to counterbalance the traditional litigation focus of law school, especially the first year.   Our clinic offerings include  mediation, legislation, public policy, community education, plus several that  include multi-forum advocacy.  But other leading educators have argues passionately for a narrower, more client focused definition.

Externship/Internship: These seeming  twins cause much confusion among the uninitiated.  The primary distinction follows from current ABA accreditation rules for externships, i.e for-credit, not-for-pay placements with a range of legal employers and opportunities for reflection through a classroom component or otherwise; internship is typically used for otherwise similar experiences that do not satisfy ABA requirements.

Practicum:  The new kid on the block in law, but familiar in social work and other programs for experiences analogous to law school externships. May be used as synonym for externship or  to denote an externship-like offering that doesn’t satisfy ABA requirements (my school uses it for LLM. “externships”).  Increasingly popular to describe externship-like “in the field” experiential opportunities  integrated with a seminar classroom course. In the last several year, for instance,  Georgetown, has developed a structured program of such courses in order to provide experiential education for a higher % of the student body in one of the larger law schools in the country.

Service learning:  A term widely used in undergraduate and K-12 contexts.  Often adopted by individual teachers eager to heighten their students’ understanding of current issues though exposure to how they play out in context.  May look very similar to some versions of a “practicum”.

Lab course:  A term initially coined at Seattle U. to describe small credit  simulation based courses to accompany doctrinal courses and provide an opportunity to apply the doctrine in a lawyering context and still often used that way, in for instance, Gonzaga’s first year required Skills Labs.   Other schools appear to use the term Lab for a specialty program designed to provide practical exposure to an area of law,, often including opportunities that would be considered a “clinic” under a broad definition of that term, e.g.  Chicago’s Corporate Lab, Vanderbilt’s International Law Practice Lab .

is it a ‘pipe dream” to think we can, or should, rationalize our use of these terms?  Your perspectives welcome.

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