Have We Forsaken Quality and Professionalism for Technological Convenience in the Training of Lawyers in the 21st Century? The ‘Flexible Learning' Paradigm

Have We Forsaken Quality and Professionalism for Technological Convenience in the Training of Lawyers in the 21st Century? The ‘Flexible Learning' Paradigm

Gaye Lansdell (Monash University Law Faculty, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-874-1.ch007
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Abstract

Critical questions and issues face legal educators as a result of the challenges and opportunities provided by the advent of information technology. This chapter focuses on the introduction of online learning environments in the legal education context primarily at the point of pre-admission practical legal training. It queries whether parallels can be drawn between changes in technology and changes in the learning and training of lawyers. In turn, it considers whether such changes are for the benefit of the students, their intended profession and the society it is supposed to serve. Can the important communication skills, the cornerstone of legal work, be obtained through flexible delivery modes? What are the perceived limitations, disadvantages of such programs and do they outweigh the advantages? Can the professional ethos of lawyering be conveyed and developed adequately by an online training program? In this context, the literature pertaining to online delivery in the area of legal education is considered. The writer also reflects on observations of teaching instructors in both the on-campus and online courses of the Postgraduate Diploma of Legal Practice, Skills and Ethics (PDLP) at Monash University. The chapter considers course evaluations administered to cohorts of PDLP students. Finally, the chapter proposes the preferred way forward for virtual communicators in producing online programs in this area.
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Introduction

This chapter focuses on the introduction of online learning environments in the law school context, primarily at the point of pre-admission practical legal training. Practical legal training, or PLT, is the end stage of law qualifications for students wishing to practice law. It is either fulfilled by articles of clerkship, or traineeships, and/or by completion of a course covering practical skills and competencies across common legal transactional areas. Such courses are offered by universities or by private organisations in Australia (Department of Justice, 2006). The chapter queries whether parallels can be drawn between changes in technology and changes in the learning and training of lawyers. In turn, it considers whether such changes are for the benefit of the students, their intended profession and the society it is supposed to serve.

The so-called loss of professionalism (Farrow, 2008; Thornton, 2007) of modern lawyers is arguably a direct result of changes in pedagogy in law faculties characterised by the increasing move away from the teaching of law as a vocation back towards the classic liberal model of university education evincing a perceived gulf between law schools and the profession. There is a tendency in the liberal legal education model to see the mission of universities as preparing “good citizens or better persons rather than good lawyers” (Burridge & Webb, 2007, p. 74-5). Zerelli (2008) also laments the fact that the current way in which law is taught in Australia means that its transformative potential is being lost to an informational only type qualification because the law degree has become so highly liberalised so as to almost “replace the arts degree” (p.107). In this context, the content and depth of legal doctrine that is taught has been ‘watered’ down. Technological advances arguably reinforce this restricted model and threaten the development of a professional ethos. This is due to the relative ease of converting liberal curricula as opposed to vocational based courses to online programs. Professionalism is threatened by the difficulty of inculcating cultural and professional legal values in an online context.

Online training poses challenges in the legal arena. Can the important communication skills, the cornerstone of legal work, be obtained through flexible delivery modes? What are the perceived limitations, disadvantages of such programs and do they outweigh any advantages? Is the quality of practical training programs threatened by the move to flexible learning paradigms? Can the professional ethos of lawyering be conveyed and developed adequately by an online training program? Considering the efficacy and appropriateness of flexible learning options in the field of legal education at the pre-admission practical legal training level, this chapter will argue that as a bare minimum, a blended learning design with a combination of online components supplemented with regular face-to-face sessions and feedback on assessment tasks is required to inculcate the important professional legal skills and values. Moreover, this model of training will generally enhance the well-being of the profession and its professional standing in the community. In coming to this conclusion, the observations of teaching instructors over approximately six years for the on-campus and three years for the online offerings of the Postgraduate Diploma of Legal Practice, Skills and Ethics (PDLP) at Monash University, in Victoria, Australia, will be considered. The chapter will also examine course evaluations administered to cohorts of students in the PDLP from 2005-2007. Finally, the chapter will propose some best practices for online delivery in practical legal training and the preferred way forward for the virtual communicators in producing such programs.

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