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Building Learning Communities: Clinical Legal Education at Portsmouth

Vicki Brown

It now seems like such a long time ago that we were all due to meet and exchange ideas at our conference in Stirling but we are still feeling that loss of opportunity to catch up and connect, share our projects and get feedback. This blog post is the next installment of work that we would have heard about at the conference. It comes from Vicki Brown who is based at the University of Portsmouth. Please do post comments and questions.

Building Learning Communities: Clinical Legal Education at Portsmouth

Like many others, we were disappointed to lose the opportunity to join everyone at this year’s conference and to present our initial findings and plans for continuing research looking at ‘clinical legal education as a learning community’. Although aware that our research is still in its first stages, we were looking forward to putting our ideas out for discussion and for finding out more about the work that others are engaged in.    The current crisis has however, now provided us with an extra dimension to exploring learning communities in clinical environments such as, does the learning community require students and staff to be physically present? Can a sense of community extend to online services and delivery?

Many universities now offer some form of clinical legal activity to law students. Clinical Legal Education (CLE) has been described as the “practice of law and the behaviour of the lawyer” (Combe 2014) Traditionally universities have offered students a wholly academic route to gaining a law degree, however, over the last 30 years there has been a growth in the number of opportunities being made available to students to take part in activities which promote ‘learning by doing’. In some cases, this activity is delivered as an extra-curricular opportunity, in others, such as that offered by the University of Portsmouth, the activity is assessed for credit and so forms part of the overall degree classification. Final year law students can, after taking part in a competitive application process, work in either our in-house general advice clinic or with one of our community partner organisations. These opportunities are part of a 40 credit module and are taken instead of a dissertation. CLE is popular with the students with at least one telling us, “I feel that this experience is very vital to my professional development, by far the most significant and impactful module I have taken –  it should be compulsory for everyone taking law”.

Thinking about this comment and whether or not CLE can build an effective learning community for students, then maybe the first question should be, ‘what is a ‘learning community’?  Perhaps the simplest definition is that it is a group who share common academic goals. On the face of it, this seems very straightforward, surely all of our students share at least one academic goal, which is to achieve a good degree in law and so it follows that Universities and law schools must therefore provide a natural learning community? Job done! In the pre-Covid world that was the starting position which we were ready to explore and to discover more about, to apply and to make recommendations and to offer a conclusion. This remains the case, however in the ‘new normal’ we are all now busy trying to prepare for a transition from a mainly campus based face-to-face learning approach to a delivery that is, at least in the short term foreseeable future, a ‘blended’ approach of online with socially-distanced small group work or, as is perhaps more likely, wholly online. This sudden and unprecedented change, albeit stressful for everyone concerned, will give us the chance to deeper understand some of the fundamental questions that we need to ask to inform our research, including; do students recognise CLE as a learning community and do they need to? Does distance make a difference – can ‘soft’ outcomes such as building self-confidence and resilience only be achieved by physical closeness to the work, to the client and being part of a team? As always, there seem to be more questions than answers, but we look forward to trying to answer them.

The Clinic Students May 2019


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