Time for some blue-sky thinking in legal education

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Subject to the vagaries of air travel, I will arrive in Sydney later today to attend the UNSW Legal Education Conference. I’ll be presenting with my colleagues Alex Steel and Melissa Castan on some work we are doing developing a taxonomy of legal education research. More on that in another post.

In this post, I outline my thoughts on the state of publishing in Australian legal education. I’ll be presenting these as part of a plenary panel at the conference.

Over the recent decade-and-a-bit, higher education has seen a welcome focus on student learning. This has raised expectations of professionalism in university academics in terms of the scholarship of learning and teaching, with (we assume) concomitant improvements in teaching and ultimately, student learning.

At the same time however, research metrics have dominated in the academy. In particular, the way in which research is measured and valued depends on a critical mass of research in a particular field, and the capacity of institutions to weave a narrative around that research in terms of utility and impact.

You might believe that research into teaching – including legal education – might fulfill the utility and impact requirements. However the structure of the measuring system predicates against celebrating legal education scholarship. This has become even more so since the demise of the Office of Teaching and Learning, and its grants program.

Other challenges include the scarcity of specialist journals publishing in legal education, and the difficulty in publishing legal education research in generalist law journals. Further, and as John Flood has observed, legal education scholars are frequently legal scholars first – resulting often in a lack of capacity to engage in interdisciplinary methods. This can tend to hold back the potential for research-led innovation in legal education.

For legal academics, there is little incentive to embark upon legal education research – the poor cousin of legal research proper. Indeed, anecdotally, some institutions actively discourage (I have even heard ‘forbid’) research into legal education.

Yet never has there been a stronger case for research into legal education. In the first place, legal education shapes – or has the power to shape – the law itself. In short, legal education is law. What we teach law students, and how we do so, is central to the lawyer they will become.

But importantly also, the impact of technologies on legal practice and on law demands that we think differently about legal education. To do this, we need research. This research needs to support claims that we break free from the now considerably outdated modes of legal education. Rather than reproducing existing structures of law and legal practice, we rely on research:

compris[ing] creative and systematic work undertaken in order to increase the stock of knowledge – including knowledge of humankind, culture and society – and to devise new applications of available knowledge.

It is now up to the legal academy to guide the profession, the regulators, and the judiciary in re-imagining legal education that will equip graduates for contemporary and future practice that is significantly altered in the face of ubiquitous digital technologies.

Over to you.

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