Impressions from ALT Annual Conference 2014 Day 3

imageThe third and final day of the ALT Annual Conference (Tuesday, 15 April) consisted of two rounds of parallel sessions.

First up, Gemma Davies and Emma Piasecki from Northumbria University spoke to “Where to now for the Bar after LETR?” They began with the question, ‘Is the bar training course fit for the purpose?’ They observed the LETR prima facie accepted legal education was working well, but there is room for improvement, although changes should be accomplished with a “light touch”. This involves taking into account existing positions and structures when dealing with the bar, including the notion of an independent bar. Gemma and Emma observed that the existing “blue book” regulation of the bar training course is very prescriptive and inhibits innovation, with implications for diversity in the profession. There are some ‘encouraging themes’ emerging through an education strategy framework, with a focus on an outcomes-based approach. It remains uncertain whether regulation of the bar training course will be eased to allow more innovative approaches to training.

My presentation followed, ‘O where are you going? O do you imagine? Reproduction and Response – A reflexive sociology of scholarship of teaching and learning in practical legal training’. The Prezi can be viewed here. A draft paper can downloaded from here. I tried to fit too much into this presentation (although an awful lot of work was left out – but isn’t that always the way?). Feedback was positive, with half a dozen people following up with questions and requests for a copy of the paper during the morning tea break.

After the break, Jane Ching (Nottingham Law School) spoke to “The Judge and the Jedi II: the Academy Strikes Back”. This interesting session explored the power or occulting of legal language, through a series of vignettes or games. It is an occult power that law students need to “get” to practice law. Jane took us through different points of view – what people think lawyers do with language, what lawyers think lawyers do with language, what linguists think lawyers do with language, and whether linguists, social scientists and psychologists can help us to understand what lawyers do with language. There were some interesting examples of how this can be explored through teaching and learning in legal education. One example was converting a terse memorandum into an email to counsel, a letter to a 60 yr old financial director client, a text to a 22 yr old Iranian asylum seeker client, and a case summary to be filed at court. An interesting reflective session that took me back to my undergraduate studies in socio-linguistics.

Last presentation of the day and of the conference, was Nigel Duncan’s (City Law School), “Representation: Developing Objectivity and Artistry for trainee lawyers”. Nigel’s presentation described an innovation to help students develop professional objectivity as lawyers. In particular, students were given realistic case files to run over several sessions, from taking instructions, writing an opinion, attending a mediation, drafting pleadings and attending opposed interlocutories. The clients’ instructions were problematised in some way, by blind spots or gilding the lily, for example, or problems of capacity. Students were encouraged to reality test instructions, to maintain professional objectivity and ethical standards, and to resist wilful blindness in pursuit of victory in an adversarial context. The aim was to develop realistic scenarios to provide students with insights about professional objectivity and practical artistry, and constructively align learning activities with assessments. Nigel shared interesting evaluations, where some students clearly “got it”, in terms of objective assessment of client instructions, whereas others might have missed the point. It shows how challenging it is to inculcate certain skills within a limited time; it also shows innovative curriculum planning can improve learning outcomes in skills training. A good synthesis of theory and practice, I look forward to Nigel’s book chapter that draws on this work.

So, that was my experience of the ALT 2014 Annual Conference in Leeds. I am impressed with the open and generous approach attendees adopted in sharing work for external scrutiny, and the generous and constructive approach to discussion and critique. As a newbie, I was made to feel welcome and encouraged to return for next year’s conference in Cardiff. I aim to be there.