The Imperative and Power of Empirical Research

By Anahid Gharakhanian, Southwestern Law School

Allison Korn and Laila L. Hlass’s Assessing the Experiential (R)evolution, recently published in Villanova Law Review, should be celebrated as a much needed example of empirical investigation and analysis in legal education, specifically experiential education.  As aptly noted in the Experiential Education section of Building on Best Practices, “[l]egal education urgently needs empirical research on what methods will best promote deep learning that transfers to practice.” 

For many years, the experiential teaching community has had the benefit of the triennial CSALE Study, providing extensive data about the infrastructure of clinics and externships.  Now Korn & Hlass’s empirical work provides data about the proliferation of deans/directors of experiential education and growth in experiential curricula.  This data sets the stage for the important questions they raise about what law schools are doing about the following:  “working to uplift experiential programming as an essential part of the institution,” and “core to the law school curriculum”; “taking steps to identify, recruit, and support clinicians of color”; and ensuring security of position and voice in law school governance.  Korn & Hlass’s work, along with CSALE’s compilation of data since 2007 about applied legal education, serves as an essential foundation for posing these important questions and joins the clarion call of others that rigorous empirical research is critical in every aspect of our assessment and advancement of experiential education – the students’ learning, role of experiential curricula, and diversity of and equity for experiential faculty. 

I think about the critical importance of empirical work from the vantage point of externships or field placement courses, which provide a singularly unique bridge to practice and where so much of the student’s experience occurs outside of the classroom and the externship professor’s direct observation.  Anecdotally we know that these real world experiences are very important to a student’s professional development and practice readiness as a new attorney.  At the same time, the ABA and some in legal education have worried about the educational rigor outside of the law school setting.  What’s needed is exploration of our impressions and perceptions through rigorous empirical work.  In the world of externships, this translated into research questions that Carolyn Young Larmore, of Chapman University, Fowler School of Law, and I took up in a year-long, multi-school study, assessing students’ success at externships and factors contributing to it (involving three law schools in the same geographic area, with very different externship program designs, and widely different incoming credentials – with 2019 median LSATs of 153, 158, and 168).  The study yielded helpful information about the importance of externships to practice readiness.  Also, a notable finding of our study – related to access – was that students from all three surveyed schools achieved very similar levels of externship success (measured in terms of first-year practice readiness), regardless of widely different entering credentials as well as the academic component of the externship programs.  Similarly, the study found that law school GPA plays a very limited role in predicting externship success.  You can see how this data could be a powerful tool in creating access for law students, from many diverse academic backgrounds and schools, to career-shaping professional experiences while in law school and beyond.

As we tackle empirical questions in experiential education, it’s helpful to think about backward design.  In the case of the experiential programming that we offer to our students, a couple of recent national studies are enormously helpful: IAALS’s Foundations for Practice, a relatively recent national study about what foundations entry-level attorneys need to begin a successful legal career (which is the study that Carolyn and I used to define externship success in our own study – i.e., how close are externs by the end of their externship to first-year practice readiness); and the very recent study by IAALS and Professor Deborah Jones Merritt, Building a Better Bar: Capturing Minimum Competence, with one of its two objectives to “[d]evelop and promote understanding of the minimum competence needed to practice law” (and the second one to “[a]lign the bar exam with research-based concepts of minimum competence”). 

To borrow from IAALS and Professor Merritt, the key here is being guided by research-based concepts.  Whether assessing our students’ learning (as Carolyn and I tackled in our externship study), or raising questions about the role of experiential curricula, and diversity of and equity for experiential faculty – as Korn & Hlass have done – we need to engage in more empirical research and use this powerful tool to inform and advance the critical work of experiential education and educators.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for posting and alerting us to this important piece of empirical research concerning meaningful learning and externships. I just sent a copy of your SSRN link to some of my colleagues and my academic Dean.

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