TERMINOLOGY AND MEANING: Experiential & Learning & Context-based & Lawyering Role & Structured Supervsion &…..

I think we are at a point in the legal education reform movement, where terminology to identify the  complementary but distinguishable kinds of “Experiences” and kinds of “Learning” seems important.(Deborah Maranville, Russell Engler, Sue Kay and I are working on a piece which analyzes some of this….)

For purposes of the lists some of us are in the process of creating to identify schools which are mandating experiential learning, I think it would be helpful to discuss our terminology.   In my mind, I divide or group the categories by four (4)  factors (with sub-factors within):


2)  the use of CONTEXT-BASED APPROACHES – if students are learning by methods which involve the CONTEXT of what
real lawyers do

3) the use of LIVE  or SIMULATED experience; and

4) whether the live  experience is one which involves the student
actually ASSUMING a LAWYER’S ROLE, a legal-related role or observing or  reflecting on a lawyer’s role

In using these 4 FACTORS,   I see a continuum of ways to define courses. This way of looking at the curriculum offerings takes the courses out of more traditional categories. So for example,

1.  TRADITIONAL SOCRATIC-LECTURE & SOME DISCUSSION COURSES:      focuses on the  “structured supervised TEACHING” (and ostensibly LEARNING) but students don’t’ necessarily “EXPERIENCE” any learning in “CONTEXT”  and certainly don’t do anything close to “LIVE LAWYERING ”  This is the tradition which Carnegie found incomplete and Best Practices challenged schools to grow out of.

2.  CONTEXT-BASED COURSES: the Primary focus is the STRUCTURED LAWYERING EXPERIENCE  – many “skills courses” fall into this category but more and more courses are infusing this context of having students DO WHAT LAWYERS DO as part of the class and assess them on this. These courses generally do not involve “live” experiences.  The Simulation is the Hallmark of “context-based” learning.

3. EXPERIENCE BASED COURSES : The PRIMARY FOCUS is to have students engage in law related or “perspective” related   real world experiences as part of the course.  The students do not assume the role of the lawyer, there is some but not a large amount of structured supervision.  Most pro bono projects, some traditional courses, some clinics (street law?) and some externships (systemic critique & reflection opportunities) fall into this model.

n the LIVE CONTEXT of what real lawyers do and the students ASSUME A LAWYER’S ROLE” (Traditional Inhouse clinics and externships).

What do you think? Does this capture it? What is bothersome about this
grouping? Would you suggest alternative categories?  And where do theoretical, interdisciplinary  and cultural perspective courses fit in?

I’d love to hear thoughts!

STAY dry if you are on the East coast,

6 Responses

  1. I agree that some terminology could be useful at this point. I think it is a great idea to tease out what we mean by experiential learning, because it is used to capture so many different types of processes.

    On the other hand, I am stuck on the description of “Experience Based” Courses – where students “do not assume the role of the lawyer. ” When you refer to the role of the lawyer, what do you mean? Are you distinguishing Experience-Based from Apprenticeship based on whether a student is engaged in direct representation of a specific client vs. engaging in activities that lawyers do, such as research, advocacy, etc.? Wondering how you are interpreting the role of the lawyer for these purposes.

  2. Lisa, you raise some really good points. I think of the role of a lawyer as either having a “lawyer-client” relationship or being a government lawyer. There are other types of work in which being a lawyer or having a law degree is an excellent background to have but the role itself woudl not involve the profesional rules of conduct – one is not acting as a lawyer. For example, when you do a community training or help organize a grasroots community group, you may be using lawyer skills but not engaging in a lawyer-role.

  3. Ann Juergens raised the following questions:

    1) what do you call a traditional Socratic or lecture course where the teacher is incorporating simulations throughout the semester or year?
    As for 2), focus on experience or service but without structured supervised learning. . . can you get credit for such activities in an ABA accredited law school?
    3) and 4) are descriptions that correspond, except that many externships do not have the student assuming a lawyers’ role. I think externships may be another category.

  4. The following comment is posted with the permission of Professor Robert Seibel:

    Hi Mary and others, thanks for raising some challenging issues. I don’t know if we will reach any consensus on all these issues, and it may be that we need some different definitions and terminology depending on the context.

    One parameter might be the continuum of the source of information or learning and the role of the law school—on one end is the traditional course with a textbook and a faculty member who fairly strictly controls the syllabus and the learning agenda, and perhaps on the other end is the experience based learning from a pro bono volunteer position, a paid clerking job, or even a quarter of coop work at Northeastern (my alma mater) where there is little control by the school and where the experience itself largely constitutes the source of learning. In the middle at various points are the externship with various structures like a classroom component, journals, etc., simulation courses, real client clinics, etc. We could discuss where on the continuum each of these falls, but it seems like we would be focusing on the role of the law school as a value adder as much as the nature of the activity of the student. Perhaps this just boils down to needing to further refine levels of “structured supervised learning”.

    I have little doubt that there is lots of learning that goes on in a paid clerking job even though there is virtually no law school involvement, no credit and no grade. It may even be that students learn more in such environments than they do in some of the most tightly structured law school learning environments. And I recognize that student individual learning styles and experiences may play a large role—some students will simply learn more from a traditional classroom course than they will from a clinic or clerking job, because that course meets their particular style of learning. And I certainly don’t question the proposition that one of our goals is to equip students to be independent learners for their professional lives after law school, so, in a way, the least structured experience that still generates a lot of learning is the ideal.

    I think this leaves me kind of thinking that it may be too difficult to get many hard and fast categories. Maybe we need to at least identify the parameters that seem most important in evaluating programs. I initially raised a question about combining pro bono with clinical experiences simply because I was concerned about blurring the lines between what students get credit for (on the assumption that the awarding of credit is a significant statement by the institution about what is valuable) and what they may learn from but not have much value added by the school to the learning.

    I do think Mary has one of the most important criteria in that the nature of the work and the role of the student are very important considerations no matter what the rest of the context is.

  5. Bob, thanks for articulating many ideas which were also flowing through my brain. I do think we need to focus on the student-centered nature of what we do especially focusing on the fact that we are in charge of graduating students who based on our school’s curriculum and 1 exam (the bar) are entrusted with real people’s crises and heartaches and financial matters and disputes.

    Although we don’t need hard and fast categories, I still think it is important to explore and challenge the terms we use and make sure we clarify why we use those terms and not others. We need to face head on the different strengths, values and gaps of each teaching method and kind of course. It is in their collective offerings that there is ultimate worth.

    • How helpful to be struggling with a question, to go to the Best Pracitces site, and to find just the sort of conversation one needs! thanks.

      I am struggling with a definition of Externship. I want to distinguish an externship from other legal experiences (e.g. a coop or a summer job). I look forward to hearing what people think
      Externship: a legal practice experience supervised by a lawyer who is not an employee of a law school, where the ultimate authority for oversight and support is with an independent body – a law school or bar association

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