At the end of Day 1 of this year’s conference I am feeling that, for me, this is the most exciting I have attended in relation to my interest, the scholarship of teaching in practical legal training.
Professor Peter Lyons invigorated the commencement of proceedings with an enlightened, and funny, key note address entitled, ‘Keeping it Simple: Kids, Romans and Barristers. Some observations on professional legal training in the northern hemisphere.’ Punctuated by some very amusing illustrative anecdotes about good teaching (including some instructive stories against himself), Peter made the important point that PLT teachers are in an excellent position to develop and improve teaching practices in PLT, and that in an increasingly competitive environment, a failure to do so may cause PLT stakeholders to question the value of what is being supplied, and see PLT subsumed into in-house programs. If you have an opportunity to see Peter’s work or to hear him speak, I recommend that you make time to do so.
During the parallel streams, I was spoilt for choice, but settled first on Claire Humble and Ann Beckingham’s ‘National Disclosure Guidelines? What state are you in?’. This was a very useful session for those involved in PLT completion and assisting PLT graduates with the admission process. It appears that efforts to unify the disclosure requirements for admission into a national approach have not succeeded, with a number of states electing to go their own way. The session then focused on the Victorian approach to disclosure requirements, particularly in relation to admission candidates’ who may have mental health issues. Many participants in the workshopped segment of this session were surprised by just how onerous the disclosure requirements in Victoria can be, and the presenters showed use some interesting statistical data to illustrate the rate of disclosures in each jurisdiction and compared these to the rate of disclosures deemed to be “serious” matters (for example, in Victoria the disclosure rate was about 95%, but the rate of serious matters was very low). Given the considerable effort candidates must expend to produce the disclosure documents (including affidavit material), one wonders if the requirements are worthwhile. A very important topic and one worth following.
Next was my own presentation on ‘Skills in LLB Threshold Learning Outcomes and Competency Standards for Entry-Level Lawyers – a Comparison using CAQDAS’. This was surprisingly well-attended, and I was very pleased with the question session afterwards. I hope to produce a paper based on this topic, and will upload a copy of the presentation visuals when I return to Victoria next week.
After lunch I attend Kathryn Kearley’s presentation, ‘Use of Reflective Practice for Practical Legal Training teachers – A picture paints one thousand words or do thousands of words paint the picture?’. This is an area of professional practice that is close to my own heart (I am interested in Donald Schon’s version of action research, which involves the reflective practitioner approach). Kathryn provided some very useful background, and strategies for PLT teachers taking up a reflective practice approach to their own teaching practice. Kathryn seems to have a larger project on the boil here, and I look forward to seeing its development.
Next, was a very interesting session by Dr Chris Trevitt, ‘Upping the ante: how assessment can suggest limitations of the ‘train the trainer’ model, as well as possible alternatives’. Chris adopted a conversational approach to this presentation, encourage a discussion with participants about some of the theoretical and practical issues to designing instruction and assessing professional skills. It seems he was leading up to a discussion about the use of portfolios in teaching and assessment, however we ran out of time before we could really get our teeth into this part of the topic. I am very interested in Chris’s approach and will be following it with interest.
The last session before the afternoon break, by Daniel Matas and Dr Colin James, ‘Bankruptcy Court Practical Training in PLT’, posed the very real problem of teaching students how to attend to the detail in legal documents and processes. Bankruptcy Notices provide an excellent case study for this issue, given the requirement for strict compliance regarding the form of notice and the readiness of courts to set aside these notices as defective if the requirements are not strictly followed. Daniel described how, despite explaining the need for exactitude, students made quite common mistakes when they were asked to draft these notices as part of their coursework. He asked the participants what approaches could be taken to teach the need for attention to detail. One suggestion that appeared to garner the room’s support, is taking a face-to-face approach to a drafting session, with peer assessment activities to improve student understanding of the drafting skills.
During the afternoon break I enjoyed a catchup with Michael Appleby who, with Judy Bourke, has worked so hard at researching, designing and implementing the College of Law Australia and New Zealand’s lawyers’ mental health and well-being program of workshops. Judy and Michael have presented on the topic around Australian and more recently in the United Kingdom, where their work has attracted a lot of interest.
I only caught the last 10 minutes of Elizabeth Keough’s, ‘Making it real in a virtual world: teaching the affective dimension of legal practice through authentic client interaction’. From what I did hear, this sounds like a very interesting project that involves working with a scriptwriter and actors to create as authentic a client interaction as possible for PLT interview instruction and assessment.
Next I caught Adam May’s energetic presentation, ‘Designing the Horror File: Improving the learning of Risk Management in PLT’. Adam drew our attention to the neglected subject of Risk Management, and showed us how this is a space in which so many lawyers’ skills converge, particularly ‘communication’ (or perhaps, ‘miscommunication’). The horror file is based on reality, with an aggregation of real life practice dilemmas, a cautionary tale, and some really challenging problems for students to identify and describe.
The last session that I attended to day was one not to be missed. Jacqui Lynagh’s ‘Incorporating the Development of Dispositions into PLT Course Design’ was clearly, concisely and creatively presented, and also theoretically and practically rigorous, with great tools for instructional designers and teachers to analyse and design curriculum with a view to developing appropriate dispositions in young lawyers undertaking PLT. This was excellent work and I recommend that those interested in curriculum design take notice of Jacqui’s project.
So, at end of Day 1 I feel inspired and optimistic about future developments in PLT, particularly in relation to scholarship and research in teaching PLT.