Putting Best Practices Into Practice: Implementing Change One Step at a Time

In 2007, CLEA published Best Practices for Legal Education, which articulated ways to effectively educate law students to leave law school better prepared to practice law responsibly, effectively and ethically. Since, then, Best Practices has been part of the collective conversation about reform in legal education, a conversation evidenced by list serve discussion, recent and upcoming conferences, and the larger curriculum reform discussions and innovations happening around the country.

Reviewing Best Practices can be satisfying when one finds that one is already implementing its ideals in the classroom or clinic. In fact, much of what is there looks familiar, especially to clinicians. On the other hand, it can be daunting to see a list of practices that are not part of one’s plan for instruction. Viewing the book as a resource for new ideas, however, allows one to experiment with different practices, and to incorporate changes over time. This column describes a few ways that the book has proved to be useful to a clinical legal educator.

Improving Peer Feedback Skills

Teaching students to perform tasks that lawyers perform, and allowing them to inhabit the role of the lawyer is central to the clinical teaching method. The giving and receiving of feedback on student performance of lawyering tasks is one of the ways that students learn how to learn from their experience. Frequently, the classroom critique of students’ performance takes place in the beginning of the course, when students are learning interviewing skills in preparation for meeting their first clients. Clinic students must not only understand the effectiveness of their role performance, but they must be able to internalize what they have learned in order to continue developing their skills.

For a number of years, I gave students brief, general guidelines for giving in-class critiques of role-play performances. In an effort to be more intentional about this aspect of my teaching and in hopes of improving the quality of student learning, I consulted Best Practices. There, I found a list of guidelines for training students to perform effective critiques, and guidelines for students who are receive critique in Chapter 5 under “Best Practices for Experiential Courses.”

Rather than learning simple, general principles of critique, such as “identify some positive aspects of the performance,” and “be specific,” my students now are being trained to employ best practices in giving feedback, as suggested in Chapter 5. Following these explicit guidelines for training has resulted in an improvement in the quality and care given to the critiques. It has also increased the ability of students to listen to peer feedback and find something to take away. Adopting and teaching these guidelines required that I devote more class time to training students to give and receive feedback. This time commitment, and more depth of instruction about feedback techniques, emphasize to students the importance of self and peer analysis as a learning tool. Thus, consulting Best Practices helped me re-think and improve upon something that I was already doing in the classroom. With a small investment of time, I was able to enhance the quality of the peer feedback and the receptiveness of students hearing it.

Refreshing Course Content

Best Practices has also served as a catalyst for small, but important, changes in the content of my course. For example, the comments in Chapter 5 under “In-house clinical courses” restate some of the key values of the profession and some of the desirable outcomes for legal education. One of those values is “the importance of seeking justice and providing access to justice.” Another is helping students “to deal sensitively and effectively with clients, colleagues and others from a range of social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds, identifying and responding positively and appropriately to issues of culture and disability that might affect communication techniques and influence a client’s objectives.” This chapter also includes identifies best practices for using simulations.

Reading the comments on values prompted me to consider a unique, but important aspect of our clinic’s practice as part of a medical-legal partnership in which the medical partner is a children’s hospital. Every low-income client that is referred to the clinic for legal has a child that has been diagnosed with a serious illness or disease. This family condition is something that students must understand and respond to, because it can impact client communication and decision making, and create competing priorities.

To help students gain this understanding of our clients and their unique circumstances, I developed role plays that incorporated the sick child, the medical diagnosis and treatment, and the family dynamic surrounding those issues as a backdrop to legal issues that must be resolved. These details help students learn how to be sensitive to their client’s individual situations and consider how such a health crisis impacts the lawyer’s ability to serve the client. Helping students explore what it means to deal sensitively with a client who is living in substandard housing and has a child with a life-threatening disease and a suppressed immune system gives students the opportunity to develop their capacity to deal sensitively and effectively with clients in crisis.

Adopting New Methods of Assessment

Another recommendation in Best Practices that I may not have considered on my own was the suggestion in Chapter 7, “Best Practices for Assessing Student Learning,” which states, “Require Students to Compile Educational Portfolios.” I have experimented with different methods of assessment in the clinic, but had never required the compilation of a portfolio. I now require students to maintain a portfolio of their written work. This compilation can be used to track development of skills over time and the contents can be shared with potential employers to demonstrate a student’s abilities.

Introducing the concept of keeping a portfolio has communicated to students that they will be creating a significant body of work during their time in the clinic. It requires students to take responsibility for their own learning and to evaluate their progress toward their learning objectives. Students have responded positively to this new requirement. It forces them to collect their work in one place and gives them something tangible to show for the long hours they spend working on clinic cases.

A review of Best Practices presents an opportunity to reconsider what we do in the classroom and in our clinics to achieve the desirable outcomes the book espouses. The principles articulated in the book, and the explanatory comments that follow, provide well-researched guidance on how to deliver instruction in traditional courses as well as clinical courses. These guidelines are helpful for new teachers, but can also prove useful to experienced teachers interested in improving their teaching. Almost every time I pick up the book, I am prompted to consider some way that I can improve as a legal educator and better prepare my students to be ethical, effective and responsible lawyers.

[This article was originally published as part of CLEA’s column, “Spotlight on Best Practices” which regularly appears in their newsletter. See CLEA’s Newsletter’s here.]

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