I am at Leeds in England for the Association of Law Teachers’ Annual Conference. My attendance is supported by funding through Deakin University’ Higher Degree by Research Program, and ALT’s Stan Marsh Bursary. The conference venue is Leeds’ Queens Hotel, which is an Art Deco marvel. I’ve been made to feel welcome by the conference organisers, particularly Beckie Huxley-Binns and Jess Guth (thank you!). People are very friendly here in Leeds, which is nice after 35 hours travel with no sleep (delayed flights and missed connections etc).
Day One of the conference was opened by Rebecca Huxley-Binns with passionate (and often funny) remarks around the conference theme of “responding to change”. “Change”, here, is in the context of the recent Legal Education and Training Review and the ensuing reforms. Rebecca observed how personally felt some changes are, with responses analogous to Kubler-Ross’ description of stages of grief, and “genuine fear of what’s coming.” Rebecca called on law schools to “articulate their raison d’etre”, to declare what they stand for, to “embrace change”, and realise new opportunities for the future of legal education.
Pat Leighton, Director of the Legal Education Research Network (LERN) spoke to “The Urgency of Research for Legal Education” at the first keynote address. Pat described knowledge gaps in legal education, particularly around effective understanding and delivery of legal education, which is exacerbated by failures to take note of existing research. Pat identified policy and law-making as key areas neglected in legal education research, and noted the paucity of research regarding professional legal education. She described LETR as a usefully generative early stage report, that flags areas needing attention in future research. In other words, LETR is a preliminary report rather than a conclusive set of findings. Pat recommended that legal education researchers “find new friends” through interdisciplinary work, to generate fresh insights about research areas, methodologies and methods. These could include revisiting existing data to undertake secondary analyses. Pat described LERN’s facilitative role in legal education research, and urged attendees to engage with LERN’s resources. (I know I will).
We split up for parallel sessions (3 streams), and I attended sessions by Egle Dagilyte and Peter Coe from Buckinghamshire New University, and Kumari Lane from Birbeck College.
Egle and Peter’s session was entitled ‘Professionalism in Higher Education: Important Not Only For Lawyers’. They identified “narrow” and “broad” definitions of “professionalism”. Narrow definitions were aligned with conventional legal education and trajectories, whereas broad definitions were associated with new or evolving legal education trajectories, including unreserved legal practice. Both versions require lawyers to acquire skills, values and certain professional attributes. Here, some attributes were illustrated by fact situations involving early lawyers confronted with novel situations and dilemmas, without supervisor support. Individuals’ capacity to react appropriately was linked to professional attributes that ought to be acquired through legal education. There was some discussion of how lecturers ought to role model professionalism in their teaching and interactions with students. The concept of acquired embodiment of professional attributes is an ongoing preoccupation in legal education. I recently read similar discussions in the 1970s Bowen Report and Brown Report regarding professional legal education in New South Wales. In my opinion, embodied attributes take time to acquire, and appropriate learning conditions are necessary to support this. I am interested to see where Egle and Peter take their research.
Kumari’s presentation was about her research on using online discussion groups for teaching and learning. She found that most students agreed student-student interactions supported their own learning, but lecturer presence was important for guidance and support. Kumari passionately supported online discussion forums as a teaching medium, however she noted that they required substantial support and do not run themselves. Kumari remarked on the difficulty in persuading the organisation to include discussion group activities as assessable work, and the impact this had on student participation in the online discussions. This project looks interesting and I hope Kumari gets support to develop it further.
In the second parallel sessions I attended presentations by Lars Mosesson, Chloe Wallace and Cath Sylvester.
Lars (from Bucks New University) spoke to ‘Responding to What? Busy Chasing the Buzz’. Lars questioned assumptions about what has really changed in legal education, and asked if lecturers were any better at their work than in the years before legal education reforms. It is important to question what changes are proposed, the motivation for those proposals, and identify who is behind the proposals and who stands to benefit from change. It is also important to assess the effectiveness of changes brought about by the reforms. Lars questioned whether there ought to be compulsory CPD for law lecturers. Some in the audience appeared to support professional development for law lecturers, but balked at the proposition of compulsory CPD, with at least one person remarking that it could be counter-productive.
Chloe (from University of Leeds) presented a very interesting theory session, around “connectivism” (Bell 2009; Siemens 2011) and successor theory, in contrast with behaviourist and post-behaviourist theories. Chloe remarked on a “default to behaviourism” and cited legal education’s preoccupation with “thinking like a lawyer” as an example that could fall prey to the default to behaviourism. I am a keen reader of education theory and aware of Siemens’ work but would like to learn more about connectivism and the network theory approach to learning. Not often you see a good theory session at legal education conferences.
The final presentation of the day by Cath (from University of Northumbria) concerned “Measuring Competence In Legal Education: A View From the Bridge”. Cath spoke to a “richer concept of competence” and drew on Miller’s Pyramid (1990) and de Vleuten’s utility index (1996) to discuss how to test for competency in a regulatory environment pressing for “robust” and “rigorous” assessment. It’s a real issue, I agree, particularly in practical legal training, where it can be difficult to reach consensus between assessors about what “competence” is for a given task or practice.
A really good first day at the conference, stimulating and inspiring.