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Blanco, B A; Buhai, S L --- "Externship Field Supervision: Effective Techniques for Training Supervisors and Students" [2005] LegEdDig 4; (2005) 13(3) Legal Education Digest 6

Externship Field Supervision: Effective Techniques For Training Supervisors and Students

B A Blanco & S L Buhai

[2005] LegEdDig 4; (2005) 13(3) Legal Education Digest 6

10 Clinical L Rev, Spring, 2004, pp 611–658

Monitoring effective and motivated supervision of off-campus law externs in a structured field placement program has traditionally been the chimera of law school curriculum. Effective supervision is acknowledged as the most essential element of law student training in an off-campus setting or externship. The first part of this article synthesises current literature in the pedagogical theories of field supervision in an effort to identify the methods and characteristics of an effective field supervisor, as well as how effective supervisors recognise and compensate for common barriers to effective supervision. The second part of the article addresses the training and motivation techniques for field supervisors developed by the first national consortium of law school field placement externship programs, the Greater Los Angeles Consortium on Externships (GLACE).

The last section focuses on a concept that is equally as important as motivating and training field supervisors, but receives relatively little attention and focus, either pragmatically or in literature. The concept involves the development of a ‘training curriculum’ for students transitioning for the first time from the structure of a law classroom to the less structured and often unfamiliar environment of a real law practice in a field externship. The goal of the curriculum is to provide training to aid students in the development of the crucial skills of communication, reflection and self-assessment, which are the primary elements of self-directed learning.

Effective supervision is easily inhibited where students are neither expected nor encouraged to participate actively in the process of their practical legal education. The supervisory relationship is hindered because the student assumes no responsibility for structuring the supervision of the externship. Students who passively rely on the direction and evaluation of the supervisor predictably fail to develop valuable lawyering skills, such as the ability to ‘identify what they need and how to get it’ when a traditional model supervisor is unavailable or unable to provide the instant gratification/correction the traditional model suggests.

The Contemporary Model of Cooperative Supervision presents an effective supervisory relationship as an ‘active interplay between the employer [supervisor] and the student with responsibility for supervision divided between them.’ The strength of the Contemporary Model is that it is designed to be functional by meeting the mutually dependent needs of the supervisor and student as those needs change and progress over time. The shared responsibility for obtaining supervision makes it more appropriate for an effective supervisory relationship. It also acknowledges that the nature of student learning is unpredictable and necessitates a flexible approach to supervision.

Regardless of the model, consistent themes emerge throughout the literature as persistent barriers to effective student supervision in an off-campus field setting. The goal of overcoming supervision barriers is the primary challenge for the institution in devising an approach to effective supervision training for supervisors and students. Common Barrier 1: The supervisor is not ‘vested’ in sharing the supervision goals and objectives required by the law school. Common Barrier 2: The supervisor fails to understand the dynamics of supervision and the supervisory relationship. Common Barrier 3: The supervisor lacks the time or motivation effectively to supervise students and/or provide the level of positive feedback, critique and evaluation to improve the student’s performance. Common Barrier 4: The field supervisor fails to identify the best method of teaching that corresponds with a particular student’s learning style.

In a series of preliminary meetings exploring the off-campus externship program components of the proposed GLACE schools, each faculty program director identified varying standards and criteria for selection and retention of field supervisors, for the range of expected student activities and for the amount and nature of evaluation and feedback. Each faculty director individually pondered acceptable remedial approaches or worse, the politics and potential recriminations to self and school of removing lax or intemperate supervisors from a placement list.

Partly in response to the first Clinical Legal Education Association national conference in 1993, which brought the nation’s externship professors together for the first time to discuss and investigate the externship experience, and partly in response to the newly enacted requirements of former ABA Field Placement Standard 306, six Los Angeles area law schools formed GLACE. Upon adoption of the joint standards, each GLACE school agreed to distribute the appropriate joint supervision standards to field supervisors and judicial chambers on approved placement lists each time a student was accepted and approved for the field experience.

In 1999, GLACE adopted the ambitious joint project of developing a comprehensive field supervision training manual, in addition to the field supervision standards. A consensus had grown in terms of how the GLACE externship consortium had collectively empowered individual faculty directors to knowledgeably select, educate, train and monitor shared placements and placement supervisors, and how creative group problem solving has increased the quality of the GLACE law school field programs, the quality of shared field placements and the overall quality of the field placement experience for their collective students.

Any discussion of the student perspective in the field must address the law school experience, particularly the over-emphasis in most schools on competition and technical legal analysis, and the under-emphasis on practical legal skills training, thus negatively impacting students’ perceptions of the law, abilities to communicate, and sense of how to problem-solve in live client situations. Given that most law students generally have very little professional experience upon entering law school and that law is extremely expansive, complex, and ambiguous, it is difficult for law schools to provide students with all of the tools necessary to bridge the gap between student and lawyer in three to four short years. Therefore, at the very least, it should be the aim of law school education to help law students begin to develop the skills and abilities necessary to deal with the many complexities and ambiguities they will face in the practice of law. First, the competitive nature of law school prevents open communication among law students and the free exchange of ideas. Second, although externships and other practical legal experiences are often available to law students, they are typically neither required nor emphasised, thus failing to stress the importance of practical legal experience and the development of practical legal skills. Finally, in addition to the competitive nature of law school, the Socratic method is often criticised as inhibiting an open learning environment and as an impediment in the development of many skills necessary to prepare students for the actual practice of law. Predictably, the methodical and objective nature of the Socratic method, and more generally the focus of many law professors on analysing appellate cases, teaches law students to ignore the ambiguous, unquantifiable human aspects of the issues they encounter in actual problem solving.

Reflection is the methodology through which lawyers process the information necessary to develop approaches and strategies in client problem solving; reflection means ‘thinking in a disciplined manner about what you do as a lawyer.’ The law school externship training curriculum can aid the process of identifying and accomplishing goals within the framework of a continuing and productive dialogue with the supervisor in a number of ways, including personality assessment instruments, activity journalling requirements, and periodic faculty-initiated reflective assignments requiring students to initiate discussions with supervisors on a variety of subjects, including learning objectives identified by the student and those identified by the supervisor. Thoughtfully prepared journals, with specifically defined and required content, will encourage most externs to explore the role of personal values and beliefs in the work experience, possible moral conflicts in personal values and beliefs with the work experience, changing perceptions in the role of law and the practice of law in society and their role, both as a student and in the future as a lawyer, in the institutions comprising the legal system. Journals are a significant component of a successful externship program.

The paradigm of the perfect externship field experience is this: the field supervisor is an expert in the institution that employs her. She has clear recall of the ambiguities of the law school experience and the desire to bridge the gap between theory and practice for students frustrated, like her, by that ambiguity. Students in the field know their goals, having made a thoughtful selection of the various possibilities of field placements to closely correspond with learning objectives and perhaps even career possibilities. They transition into the field experience fully prepared to alleviate initial anxiety and uncertainty through careful preparation by the law school with training in communication skills and workplace expectations, armed with anxiety-reducing checklists of questions for self and supervisor. Students report and reflect on all aspects of the field experience, eagerly and thoughtfully self-assessing their progress in the field laboratory.

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