Law schools invented the case study method of teaching, where students pour over real legal dilemmas, but this is coming under fire for lacking practicality and relevance. LL.M. programs are instead embracing practical, or experiential, learning and aim to give students the real life experience they need in today’s workplaces.
Enter the legal advice clinic, where LL.M. students dish out mostly pro-bono legal advice to the local community.
In a competitive recruitment market, law schools around the world are innovating and offering students practical experience in work clinics – including the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Stanford Law School in California.
Not just pro bono work
Most law schools offer pro bono advice, but some have taken this a step further. The University of Law and Nottingham Law School, for example, have been granted UK licenses to offer legal services.
This lets them do reserved activities like litigation and charge fees, and is attractive to students who gain exposure to a broad array of practice areas. Hundreds of students have provided tens of thousands of hours of free advice on topics ranging from property to environmental law via the two regulated clinics.
Many of the clinics also focus on social justice issues and have the power to change lives. The University of Bristol’s Law Clinic in the UK provides free legal advice to some of society’s most vulnerable people, such as those who have been assaulted or evicted from their homes.
At the Human Rights Law Clinic at Sussex Law School, the majority of graduates work in NGOs, government and international organizations — on the ground in refugee camps giving legal advice, for instance.
The Bristol clinic’s director John Peake says LL.M. students who volunteer gain technical and soft skills that enable them to hit the ground running in a law firm and reduce training on the job.
“The skills that students acquire through clinical legal experience do set them apart when it comes to recruitment,” says Peake.
“Employers are genuinely interested in finding out what a student has done and what they have learnt, since this will enhance their contribution to the firm and possibly reduce the practical training they need.”
He adds: “Traditionally, practitioner skills have been left to the [law firm], which reflected the lack of meaningful clinical opportunities in higher education. This balance is changing as more and more universities see the value of some form of clinical legal experience.”
Sarwan Singh, a senior lecturer and director of pro bono programs the City Law School in London, says law firms want to recruit graduates who are already fully equipped for practice.
“No law school can fully replicate actually working in practice,” he says. “The best one can do is increase those types of environments through internships, law clinics and pro bono work.”
Stephanie Berry, a senior lecturer in human rights law who runs the Human Rights Law Clinic at Sussex, says the type of work students do replicates the workplace.
“We are literally teaching students to be masters of law — to not only know what the law is on paper, but how to use it as a tool; how to find new interpretations of that law; use that to construct arguments, think critically about what the law is and what it should or could be.”
Beyond the case study method
Berry adds that Sussex has “moved past the case study method” to give students practical skills. One way the law school does this is through having students write research memoranda for human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
“They interview their clients, experience working to a brief and responding to client feedback, working in a team and giving presentations,” says Berry. “In return, the clients get a piece of research that they need to underpin a new project, but don’t have time to do themselves.”
But she says that academic study is still important, noting that many LL.M. students are already practicing lawyers or have years of related work experience. “I would be doing my students a disservice if I focussed solely on practitioner skills.”
At Bristol, Peake says some schools may well change the balance between case method and practical experience. But it’s not realistic to expect all students to be engaged in client-facing casework, he says. “The resources required, particularly in terms of supervision and teaching, mean that practical experience cannot be offered across the board.”
Sarwan at City agrees that there should be balance between theory and practice on LL.M.s. “There is no doubt there is a trend towards more experiential learning and that is probably the general direction of future legal education,” he says.
“Nonetheless, the need for case studies will never disappear completely. It remains an effective learning tool for students.”