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Kenny, M A; Styles, I; Zariski, A --- "Looking at You Looking at Me Looking at You: Learning Reflection in a Law School Clinic" [2005] LegEdDig 2; (2005) 13(3) Legal Education Digest 3

Looking at You Looking at Me Looking at You: Learning Reflection in a Law School Clinic

M A Kenny, I Styles & A Zariski

[2005] LegEdDig 2; (2005) 13(3) Legal Education Digest 3

11 Murdoch U Electronic J of L 1, 2004

This paper describes an exercise in reflection by staff, students and researchers on clinical legal education conducted in the SCALES clinic of Murdoch University School of Law, Western Australia. The principal focus was students: exploring what the process of reflection on the part of students can add to their learning in clinical legal education. Simultaneously, the aim was to involve their supervisors in considering the same three major aspects, and for the researchers to critically evaluate the process by which they sought to engage students and supervisors in the reflective process.

The outcomes were not as expected by the researchers: this led them to postulate a set of external and internal constraints on students and supervisors which need to be addressed if participants in the clinical education are to take advantage of the potential benefits of reflection for the process and outcomes of clinical legal education.

The law clinic appears to provide a good opportunity to encourage habits of reflection in law students because of its focus on the practice of law under practitioner supervision. Indeed, helping to create ‘reflective practitioners’ is often one of the key goals of clinical programs in law. This article focuses on several types of reflection – students’ reflection on past, present and future attitudes, beliefs and behaviours; staff reflections on the supervisory process; and the researchers’ reflections on the research process and outcomes as well as the implications for future action.

As a mirror of pedagogy, the clinic can promote reflection by student and supervisor on these roles and the requirements and expectations of each other. The clinic is a learning and teaching environment that allows quick, salient feedback between supervisor and student. As a mirror of professionalism, the clinic assists in the transmission of professional norms and capacities by allowing students and supervisors to enact and view them in each other. In this aspect student and supervisor act as collegial collaborators working for the benefit of those people the clinic assists. As a mirror of personality for both student and supervisor, the clinic allows participants to reflect upon and perhaps question their own perspectives through intense observation of other students and of the interaction between them. Unlike the usual tertiary classroom, a teaching clinic inevitably fosters a close personal relationship between student and supervisor. Reflection that explores personal beliefs and values may be necessary to form the attitudes that underpin ethical professional practice.

A Clinical Legal Education unit is conducted at Murdoch University’s law clinic SCALES — a community legal centre which provides free legal advice, information and representation to low-income people living in the area. This is an in-house clinical teaching facility where students are responsible for providing legal services to actual clients under the supervision of qualified legal practitioners.

By giving students a substantial amount of responsibility in making decisions on their assigned cases, while providing the safety net of individual intensive supervision of those choices, the unit seeks to achieve a number of outcomes including: (1) gaining legal knowledge and skills required to provide an effective legal service for clients and to work with others in an office environment; (2) embedding attitudes of professionalism, the desire to serve society and a critical appreciation of the adequacy of law and legal processes.

The clinical experience is very different from that experienced by students in the other parts of a traditional law degree. It is an experience that is very demanding for them. Students are propelled into a number of challenging relationships with their supervisor, their clients, other students and finally themselves, as they grapple with the issues and pressures of legal practice. The balance amongst these different challenges is different for each student, and will change throughout the semester, as the student gains confidence and knowledge.

At the beginning of their course, students often suffer from a lack of confidence and can struggle with the supervisory relationship because they are confronted with a novel learning situation which challenges their perceptions of themselves as highly competent learners. They, therefore, look to their supervisor for support, encouragement and feedback. The supervisor/student relationship is not a stagnant one and, as students progress through the course and a supervisor wants to encourage more independence, students can perceive this as confusing and feel that the boundaries are shifting.

Three purposes were envisaged for the present project: first, to identify and understand students’ views on the clinical legal supervisory experience; second, to conduct an analysis of students’ needs in relation to this experience in order to understand how to make it an effective and fulfilling one for them; and, third, to utilise their views and experiences and see the students as participants in the development of a manual about CLE which might enhance the experience of future students.

As far as content went, the authors envisaged structuring the research and the resulting manual according to the issues addressed in their manual for supervisors as follows: (1) perspectives on the purpose and definition of CLE; (2) student/supervisor relationships; (3) strategies used to learn in the CLE context; (4) the role of values; and (5) assessment.

They approached two groups of students to participate. One was a group of twelve third-year students who were enrolling in their first unit in clinical legal education. The other was a group of four students who were enrolled in their final year of law studies, and beginning their second experience of a clinical unit.

In the novice group, attendance at the workshops was poor after the first meeting. Although the workshop was held as part of a usual, required workshop away from the clinic setting, there was a reluctance to participate as many students perceived that part of the workshop to be intruding on their ‘real’ learning for the unit. In the experienced group, whose workshop was held in the clinic itself, the workshop facilitator encountered reluctance to participate. This group saw such activities as extremely intrusive — they saw they were there to do the clinical work which kept them very busy, and any other activity was seen as an unwarranted interruption.

There were several lessons to be learned. First, any such future research could be couched more in terms of students participating in the development of a manual for students and mention played down of how such reflection might aid them in the unit and in future professional practice. Second, the workshops could be embedded more as a normal part of the series of workshops that is held in the unit. There was the impression that students perceived the parts of the workshops dealing with the project as ‘add-ons’ and thus intrusive and irrelevant. Third, workshops should be held away from clinic sites as the atmosphere there is geared toward getting on with the tasks at hand; students’ attention and time is taken up entirely with their client concerns in that environment. Fourth, there is a need to get students to consider the value of reflection both in their studies and in the workplace. This may happen if a reflective process is introduced earlier in law studies, or if exposure to clinical legal education occurs earlier in the degree course.

There are a number of insights to be gained from our own and the students’ reflections: (1) students’ views of the supervisory relationship in a clinic are often very different from those of supervisors, and they can change over time; (2) motivations for taking a clinic and expectations of it vary widely amongst students; this affects their expectations of supervisors; (3) the clinic experience is so novel and engrossing that students find it difficult to step back and reflect on it for many practical and personal reasons; becoming a ‘reflective legal practitioner’ cannot be achieved without further exposure to practice; (4) students need to be given time and encouragement to be reflective and to see this as a relevant and salient part of their clinical experience; (5) clinic students look to their peers for support and encouragement that they either cannot get or do not believe they can get from supervisors; and (6) researching in the clinic must be carefully integrated with normal clinic processes.

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