By Emma Curryer and Carol Edwards
Emma Curryer is a Lecturer and Head of Department in the Law School at The Open University.
Carol Edwards is a Senior Lecturer and Student Experience Manager in the Law School at The Open University.
The purpose of this blog is to provide an insight into some small-scale pilot research we carried out on the development of employability skills within the Law School at The Open University (OU). The OU is a leading provider of distance education and our LLB is offered at a distance. As part of the curriculum and extra curricula activity within the Law School we offer students an opportunity to take part in pro bono legal projects. This falls within our Open Justice Centre which provides free independent advice to those in need through a range of clinics. The Criminal Justice Clinic (CJC) is one of these clinics. It provides students with the opportunity to work on live criminal appeal cases under the supervision of a solicitor.
Although there was anecdotal evidence to show that employability skills are developed as a result of taking part in the CJC, we wanted to test this further. As a result, we conducted research into employability skill development for our students who participate in the CJC. Our research has consisted of pilot questionnaires which have been issued before and after the students take part in the project. The initial questionnaire explores with students their expectations and their concerns about the project. Students are then asked to rate their competence and skills in several legal areas. The end questionnaire explores what students have enjoyed and found challenging as well as asking them to re-rate their competence and skills. We felt it was timely to share some of this information regarding students’ expectations and concerns as many of us will be starting our clinics with new students in the coming months.
At the start of the project students were most looking forward to:
“Looking Forward to?”
Most of these student observations are as expected. The CJC is clearly an obvious chance to develop new employability skills and for students to undertake research and gain experience and confidence in legal practice. This experience is likely to inform their career choice. However, we hadn’t considered the concept of freedom. This has left us reflecting on the importance of understanding individual student needs at the beginning of the CJC rather than seeing them as a cohort who wish to gain legal practice experience. In light of this we will be making sure we hold one-to-one individual sessions with each student before they start in the CJC.
Our students identified the following areas they were most concerned about when working in the CJC:
As expected, students were concerned about time management and workload. However, it was interesting to note that some students were concerned about their mental wellbeing due to their involvement in the CJC. The students appreciated they would be reading complicated and sensitive case papers belonging to a real case and felt this could impact on their wellbeing. We don’t shy away from serious cases in the CJC, as you would not be able to in practice. Our students have worked on cases involving murder, serious assaults and sexual offences. The project already addresses these concerns by providing mandatory vicarious trauma training, discussing student mental wellbeing at supervision meetings and the supervising solicitor and case worker operate a virtual open-door policy.
We noted a number of students lacked confidence and questioned their ability to be involved in the project, this is not unusual when taking on a new role. However, we were pleased to note that at the end of the project students had gained confidence and no longer questioned their ability in the same way. One student stated, “I am so proud to have worked on this project, particularly gaining knowledge and confidence in my abilities”, this has been echoed in informal feedback from students engaged in the project.
When going into this project we had preconceived ideas of the skills we thought students would think they needed for legal practice. We had presumed that students would think that skills required for legal practice would also be the same skills needed for the CJC. However, our research has shown a very different picture and challenged some of our perceptions. In relation to skills needed for legal practice our students suggested:
While the students suggested the key skills for the CJC were:
It can be seen from the list that the only common skills across legal practice and the CJC are teamwork and time management. There seems to be some disconnection about how student perceived pro bono projects, such as the CJC, compared to their concept of what legal practice might be. We are therefore of the opinion that more work needs to be done to ensure students, before joining the clinic, have a clearer understanding that the clinic is a form of legal practice. By the end of their time in clinic students are fully aware of the CJC being a form of legal professional practice.
In conclusion we are at the early stages of analysing our findings with a view to carrying out further research as the results have not always reflected our expectations. However it is good for us to be challenged in this way as it allows us to reflect on how we can further develop the CJC and more particularly result in a better experience for our students.