Stone Soup, Reflective Practice, Action Research, and Social Justice

Why did you go to law school?  Why did you decide to go into academia?  What do you want to accomplish in your work?  What do you hope for your students?

I recently read a great article that reminded me why I went to law school and became an academic.

Probably like many subscribers to this blog, I wanted to use the legal system to make the world better – and help students, lawyers, and others do so too.  As instructors, we hope to inspire our students to maintain good values and prepare them to do good deeds as they embark in the world as professionals.

This post summarizes my Indisputably blog post describing ways that you might do this as part of the Stone Soup Project.

Coming of age in the 1960s and 70s, I was particularly concerned about redressing historic injustices.  I appreciated that adversarial struggle, including litigation, was necessary to promote positive social change.  But I also recognized limitations of that approach and my interest in dispute resolution reflected my aspiration for a world in which citizens would be able to make progress through mutual respect and democratic cooperation.  While the dispute resolution movement has made some contributions to helping have-nots in society, that is not its focus or necessarily the result of its work.

I saw a way to tie these concerns together and provide a deeper rationale for the Stone Soup Project when I read Michèle M. Leering’s article, Enhancing the Legal Profession’s Capacity for Innovation: The Promise of Reflective Practice and Action Research for Increasing Access to Justice, 34 Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 189 (2017).  Since 1985, Michèle has been the executive director of the Community Advocacy and Legal Centre in Ontario, Canada.  She also is a PhD candidate at Queens University Faculty of Law in Canada.

My Indisputably blog post provides extended excerpts from her article to give you the gist of her ideas.  I encourage you to read the entire article if these ideas move you.

Here, I will include a few quotes from her article.  Then I suggest some ways that you might use Stone Soup in your courses to do action research so that you and your students might contribute to making this a better world, while providing outstanding instruction for your students.

Excerpts From Michèle’s Article

“This article explores the promise that ‘reflective practice’ and ‘action research’ offer for fostering a culture of innovation in the legal profession and the justice sector.  I believe that cultivating reflective practice beginning in law school and encouraging legal professionals and the organizations they work for to use action research strategies will synergistically contribute to a more reform-oriented and responsive legal culture and justice system.”

“At its most fundamental level, reflective practice requires skills in self-assessment–in the spirit of continually improving practice–to ensure one becomes a more proficient legal professional.  However, this is only the beginning; this minimum standard is then enriched by adding critical reflection of all kinds (on assumptions, on practice, on law, on justice, on ‘law as lived,’ on what constitutes legal knowledge), and self-reflection.  Integrating the insights gained from these reflective domains leads to further insight and richer professional knowledge.”

“Action research is a form of research that is used when there is a desire to improve practice and/or to create change with organizations or systems.  Using largely qualitative data collection methods, it is well suited to situations where little is understood about the problem or the lived experience. . . . It is ideally suited for supporting innovation in the access to justice sector because it encourages reflection and action in a cyclical process that incrementally and iteratively begins to change the situation while it is being researched.”

She concludes:  “To increase the willingness of legal professionals to engage in action research, a pragmatic approach to build this form of research would be to create succinct resource kits unique to legal education, the legal profession, and the justice sector needs.”

Stone Soup is the kind of “resource kit” that she describes.

How You Can Use Stone Soup Action Research in Your Courses

Michèle’s ideas combine theory, empirical research, teaching, legal practice, and social action.  In my Indisputably blog post, I suggest a few examples of how faculty can apply her ideas with a particular dispute resolution focus, which I summarize below.  These ideas can be applied in virtually any law school course.

We can constitute our classes as action research teams (along with all the other things we do in our courses).  Faculty can define the research questions (as Doug Yarn did in his mediation course, focusing on mediators’ case prediction behavior), students can define the questions (as a dispute resolution clinic class did following a mediation training unit), or faculty can arrange to do participatory action research, in which the stakeholders participate in the process of defining the research questions.

Some research projects could be designed to contribute to institutional development while others would analyze practice problems or focus on theoretical questions.

Examples of Institutional Design Studies

To conduct action research, students could conduct interviews of stakeholders in a system and possibly observe some proceedings.  Ideally, researchers would interview parties in addition to professionals.  This presents significant ethical and practical difficulties, however, so generally you would not include parties as research subjects.  Interviewing parties is possible, though you would need to undertake some additional, rigorous procedures.

Here are a few examples of systemic problems that your class could analyze, which may or may not address problems of disadvantaged groups.

  • self-represented litigants’ problems in navigating the courts
  • employees’ problems in making complaints to their employers
  • parties’ problems dealing with contracts with binding pre-dispute arbitration provisions
  • organizations’ problems in handling ongoing flows of litigation

Theoretical and Practical Problems

We all know that people sometimes don’t follow the theories we teach – though sometimes they do.  That’s what we have heard from colleagues whose students have done Stone Soup assignments.  Indeed, a major purpose of the Stone Soup Project is to have students inquire about the extent to which people do and don’t follow our theories.  Here are some examples of theoretical and practical projects that classes might work on collectively.

  • identify strategies for lawyers to deal with uncooperative and unrealistic lawyers and parties
  • identify strategies for lawyers to develop more productive relationships with clients
  • learn how lawyers and litigants evaluate likely court results (as research shows that most of them do a lousy job of it)

To use your classes to conduct action research, you would need to get research projects approved by the ethics research board at your school.  This can be a hassle and I plan to write a blog post with suggestions to make this as easy as possible.

Potential Outcomes

If your class undertakes an action research project, it can produce many different outcomes and products, including:

  • good, empirically-informed class discussions
  • compilation of students’ research into a single document, which might or might not be published
  • practical materials such as informational brochures to help self-represented litigants navigate the courts
  • materials to train professionals
  • (possibly confidential) briefings of stakeholders about research results
  • public conferences to discuss research results
  • recommendations for development or modification of institutional systems

From the initial Stone Soup experiments, we know that students generally are quite jazzed by these assignments.  They crave learning about the real world and love talking with lawyers and other practitioners.

Imagine how much more excited they would be if their Stone Soup activity made a positive contribution to society.

And imagine how you would feel if you develop a course that makes this happen – and you do so on a regular basis.

If Not Now, When?

Do these ideas touch your deep hopes and dreams?  If so, you can realize them through the Stone Soup Project.

Presumably it is too late to incorporate these ideas for action research into courses for the coming semester.  But I hope that you will seriously consider doing so next academic year.

If you haven’t finalized your plans for your courses this semester, you might include assignments in which students individually conduct interviews or observe cases.  This post includes materials to develop interview assignments.  Last year, there were more than 19 course offerings in which faculty used these assignments.  This post collects faculty’s assessments of the assignments in their courses.  In addition to traditional ADR courses, faculty used Stone Soup in courses on access to justice, evidence, externship, and trusts and estates.

If you will use a Stone Soup assignment this semester, please let me know and we can add you to the list of the inaugural cohort of Stone Soup faculty.

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