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Barker, D --- "Excellence and Innovation in Legal Education" [2011] LegEdDig 46; (2011) 19(3) Legal Education Digest 52

Excellence and Innovation in Legal Education

S Kift, M Sanson, J Cowley and P Watson (Editors)

LexisNexis Butterworths, 2011, 588 pp

Because of the importance of legal education in the development of the legal profession and its overall effect on the enrichment of the legal community, it has tended to attract its fair share of controversy whatever the legal jurisdiction with which it is involved. This is particularly true with regard to Australian legal education which has also had to cope with the ongoing controversy over the object of its role as either being available to assist in the training of lawyers or in the creation of a legal culture. During the last decade Australian legal education has seen the development of what David Weisbrot has described in his Foreword to this text as: ... the many dedicated legal academics ... who have put in an enormous effort to promote excellence and innovation in teaching and learning. Reading the list of contributors to this volume makes one realise that Australian law schools and relevant legal associations and institutions have presided over the expansion of a growing number of law academics dedicated to the improvement and enhancement of legal education, particularly with the need to cope with the ever increasing number of law students on a reducing provision of financial resources to deal with this increase.

This resurgence is enhanced by the fact that the book was launched by the Hon. Robert French, Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, at the Australasian Law Teachers Association Conference 2011, hosted by the Queensland University of Technology. The three day conference saw an excess of 110 plenary and interest group papers and poster presentations relating to the enhancement of legal education.

The book itself consists of the contributions from 29 participants incorporated into 19 chapters which in themselves present a major challenge to the reader. However anyone seeking to gain maximum benefit from its contents is strongly advised to read the preface first. Whilst these can sometimes be of a bland nature the preface to this book includes the philosophy adopted by the four editors in their approach towards the improvement of legal education, as well an overview of its contents and the sequential manner in which they are presented.

As explained in the preface the book: ... [it] commences with a consideration of holistic curriculum design to ensure the acquisition of desirable knowledge, skills and attitudes. Apart from describing the manner in which legal education has developed over the past 20 years, the opening chapter by Richard Johnstone attempts to put this into perspective by examining the changing nature of Australian legal education within the expanding focus of legal studies and incorporates the emphasis placed by the United States Carnegie Foundation Report of 2007 on: ... an integration of student learning of theoretical and practical legal knowledge and professional identity. He says that: ... a key challenge for contemporary legal educators is to develop a whole of curriculum approach to the law degree. Johnstone’s chapter is followed by that of Norman Witzleb and Natalie Skead explaining the relevance of graduate attributes and how they can be mapped and embedded across the curriculum, describing how each attribute could be taught, practised and assessed at either introductory, intermediate and graduation levels. This theme is carried through to subsequent chapters in respect of the embedding of specific graduate attributes into the curriculum – Critical Thinking (Nick James), Ethics (Michael Robertson), International Perspectives (Afshin Akhtarkhavari) and Cultural Awareness and Indigenous Perspectives (Thalia Anthony).

The chapter by Anne Hewitt recognises the increasing importance of having a properly developed approach to the pressures placed on law schools by the dramatic increases of student numbers in law programs. This can involve the development of an integrated and strategic approach to team teaching, often with mixed teams of both full-time and sessional law teachers. This is an invaluable chapter for those law academics faced with the challenge of teaching large student cohorts as it covers such contingent problems of ensuring efficient team management, consistency and quality in the student experience, as well as uniform marking.

Two other recent developing themes of legal education are covered by Susan Armstrong and Judith McNamara who draw attention to the importance of, and the link between the transition by students when joining and leaving university, and Vicki Waye and Margaret Faulkner’s examination of the increasing relevance of the e-portfolio to the Australian Learning and Teaching Council’s Law Threshold Learning Outcome (TLO) 5 of communicating in effective, appropriate and persuasive ways for legal and non-legal audiences and enhancing effective collaboration.

As readers of the Legal Education Digest are aware, assessment plays a major part in many of the journal articles reviewed in the Digest, and this book’s editors include a pertinent quote from Biggs and Tang in their preface: ... Assessment is the senior partner in learning and teaching. Get it wrong and the rest collapses. For any new law academic or an experienced law teacher needing to remind themselves of what is involved in assessment, Mary Heath’s chapter incorporates a comprehensive review of assessment strategies. As she states in her conclusion:

Assessment should do more than merely audit students’ level of knowledge. It should support them in their learning, forming part of the educational experience. It should be genuinely creative, engaging and challenging for students, and demand creativity from the teachers who construct it.

Patrick Keyzer is highly regarded as an experienced and innovative law teacher. In his succinct chapter relating to the use of the ‘Deeper’ Case Method, he advocates the effectiveness of students engaging with legal theory and context by reading one or two cases in depth rather than adopting a surface learning approach by being required to read a list of cases.

Three subsequent chapters all relate to aspects of the student experience in the law school. Claire Macken explains the meaning of ‘student experience’ and the six propositions for law student engagement within the specific context of legal education in Australia. As she states: Learning begins with student engagement, which in turn leads to knowledge and understanding. In her view this means that by being engaged in this way: ... students develop habits of the mind and heart that promise to stand them in good stead for a lifetime of continuous learning. Sophie Riley, Grace Li and Nicola Parker focus on how student diversity is an accepted feature of the higher education landscape explaining how cultural diversity is: ... a fundamental part of Australian history and psyche and there is a strong emphasis on social justice and equity to be found in many law schools. They support their chapter with two case studies which illustrate the effect of action research programs. In a chapter entitled: The Students Experience: The Holistic Law Student, Sally Varnham and Wenee Yap reflect on the changing nature of students and what it means to be a law student in the modern world. Besides considering the challenges faced by law students in preparing for law practice, the chapter also examines the inter-relationship between the student and the university and what happens if there is a breakdown in this relationship.

Whilst the chapter by PenelopeWatson and Rachael Field also relates to the student experience, it needs greater emphasis as it deals with the outcomes of the 2009 Research Project conducted by the Brain and Mind Research Institute (BMRI) of the University of Sydney. This empirically established that Australian law students suffer disproportionately high levels of psychological distress which is also reflected in the legal profession. In responding to this the authors develop a case for promoting law student wellbeing through legal education and describe how this may be achieved by curriculum renewal strategies for promoting law student resilience and a healthy life-style through legal education.

With his wide knowledge of both the technical aspects of teaching as well as the various teaching modes now available, it is no surprise that Ken Parish draws on his experience to explain how the options offered by the internet and associated delivery platforms: ... have created extraordinary opportunities for dramatically reducing the isolation and alienation of distance education, and optimising teaching and learning for students who cannot for whatever reason attend on-campus for tuition. This theme is further developed by Des Butler in his chapter: Technology: New Horizons in Law Teaching, which illustrates his well recognised expertise in the technological aspects of learning techniques with the cautionary need to: ... see clear educational or social value in using technologies, and resistant to attempts to integrate technology into curricula for technology’s sake.

In some respects the two closing chapters provide a reality check with regard to the practical aspects of the learning experience. In this regard Allan Chay and Frances Gibson stress the importance of work integrated learning (WIL) opportunities in its application to most clinical legal education subjects whilst emphasising the importance of incorporating experiential learning techniques in a classroom setting. In contrast Patricia Easteal stresses the importance of the law academic continuing to be encouraged to: ... combine reflection, scholarship and research with teaching.

The book itself is well referenced not only by footnotes but with additional cross-referencing in the book’s side margins. As would be expected of a book dedicated to good teaching practices the graphs and diagrams are clear and well-defined. There is also the provision of additional online resources to be used in conjunction with the printed text.

As explained in the opening to this Book Review, Weisbrot in his Foreword goes on to state that: Happily, and not surprisingly, many of those Heroes of the Revolution are represented among the authors and editors of this volume, which makes a very important contribution to the future of Australian legal education.

This reviewer endorses this statement by Weisbrot and would emphasise that Excellence and Innovation in Legal Education marks a further milestone in the renaissance which is taking place with regard to Australian legal education.

Emeritus Professor David Barker AM


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