Clinical and Doctrinal Approaches to Teaching and Learning

Guest Column

Clinical and doctrinal approaches to teaching and learning have not always been happy companions in the pedagogical life of a law school. Often cast as a-critical or a-contextual skills training better left to articling, clinical learning is seen by some to lack the gravitas of doctrinal approaches. In 2013, I began a series of interviews with clinicians and clinical law students across Ontario that very clearly showed the gap between doctrinal and clinical learning. When asked what knowledge and skill law students brought to the clinic, the most common response from both law students and clinicians was “none”. While this response might point to difficulties with knowledge transfer rather than the actual content of law school courses, these answers were – for me – startling. Clinicians also noted the difficulty in educating students on introductory skills (understanding retainers and interviewing clients, how to detect a conflict of interest, speaking to a motion). Many were eager to delve into critical lawyering and radicalized approaches to teaching and learning, particularly about ethics and professionalism, poverty, and social justice approaches to practice. However, the skills and knowledge barrier made such approaches more challenging.

In an effort to support clinical learning, and in the absence of early, mandatory education programs to support clinical students, I received funding from the University of Windsor to develop online tools for clinicians. The result (still in progress) is The materials are open source, but require that users sign up with a user name and password. The materials are linked through my youtube channel: Although initially intended as a course of study, the materials are currently stand-alone modules, some with assessment tools and reflective questions. Videos were prepared with a documentary film making class at the University of Windsor with Professor Kim Nelson. Many sections are complete, and others await filming and editing. The final project (if there is such a thing) should be complete in March 2015.

I had – and continue to harbour – concerns about the limitations of online education, particularly for clinical students. Without significant in-person instruction both in a group (through case rounds, critical discussion, and so on), as well as in structured supervisory relationships within the clinic, online tools are insufficient. However, I hope they begin to provide basic introductory education to students and trigger the importance of often-neglected topics such as reflective practice and deep self-examination, awareness of bias, and meaningful relationship-based approaches to interviewing and client counseling. Feedback and collaboration appreciated at [email protected].

Gemma Smyth is Assistant Professor and Academic Clinic Director at the University of Windsor Faculty of Law.