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Teaching law: the 21st century beckons

Teaching law: the 21st century beckons

Law schools need to step into the 21st Century, write Des Butler and Mike Russell There is a problem with law in Australia and it lies where most eventual lawyers first come face to face with…

Law schools need to step into the 21st Century, write Des Butler and Mike Russell

There is a problem with law in Australia and it lies where most eventual lawyers first come face to face with the profession: our university system.

There are three key features of the problem. First, the system is not producing lawyers who are as skilled in practising law or working within the legal industry as they should be. Second, we are losing talented young people to other vocations because they are disenfranchised by ineffective and non-engaging teaching methodologies. Lastly, the methodologies used in teaching law are not reflective of the processes which underpin contemporary business, such as human interactivity and digital communication.

We are at a pivotal point of change in law education. The knowledge and capabilities are there to deliver better quality education and lawyers. It is now up to us, collectively, to deliver change.

We need to minimise or remove the traditional lecture-based teaching methodology. Simultaneously, the use of "small group" education and methodologies that incorporate new technologies in line with social and demographic drivers must be ramped up. The way content is being used in an online environment means that the traditional thinking behind pedagogy is being challenged - flexibility is needed to identify and adopt new ways of classroom teaching.

It is in the university system that the characters of law professionals are shaped. It is here, in fact, that some of the country's most important future leaders get one of their first glimpses of how fundamental the effective practice of law is to an equitable society.

Two mindsets behind the teaching of law are holding it back. The first says: "What was good enough for me is good enough for them". The second is the "stand and deliver" lecture-based methodology of delivering content - what is written on the lecturer's page passes to the student's page without going through the brain of either.

Today's students are what the author Marc Prensky calls "digital natives", born into a hyperlinked world of technology and omnipresent information. They have no concept of the "old ways" that may have suited generations that have gone before.

However, the "old ways" - lectures - continue to dominate as a teaching methodology. This may be for a number of reasons, chiefly that they are quick and easy to write and deliver, once written they are reusable and information reaches the greatest number of students in the shortest possible time for the least amount of effort.

Researchers have underlined how smaller groups and interactive learning modules - featuring dialogue between lecturers and students and between students themselves - are decidedly more effective ways to learn.

A further impediment to changing the teaching of law is a perception that it is cheaper to persist with lectures. However, the cost effectiveness and ROI arguments are fundamentally flawed.

Some of the programs that universities such as the Queensland University of Technology run include The Merlin Affair, where a government minister is accused of taking bribes and there is a dramatic response in the media. Students sift through information to find reliable evidence and advise clients on the application of the laws governing the media (this won a student-nominated award for innovation).

A number of lecturers have developed teaching methodologies using interactive contemporary technologies such as video, multimedia, graphics, podcasts, machinima (creating CGI video without the expense of professional software), audio streaming (sound delivered via the internet), online quizzes, blogs, wikis, SMS lecture interactivity and online discussion forums.

Some of these methodologies use free or low-cost resources, while others may require some form of funding support at a time of limited government funding for universities. Where a cost is involved, the profession can do its part by providing sponsorships for projects.

Using modern technologies and small groups is a more effective way to teach law. When you tally the costs, contemporary technologies can deliver greater ROI than traditional lectures.

There are further reasons against the lecture methodology. They include the fact that lectures are not about discussion or interaction, which are far more effective as means of learning. Also, lecturers are positioned as the "font of all knowledge", and in turn, encourage the mere regurgitation of material delivered from this assumed authority. Lecturers' views should be challenged, to encourage proactive thinking, which is more in line with the "challenging" nature of legal practice itself.

The Law Reform Commission's review of law teaching in the 1990s identified that the focus should be more about what lawyers did, rather than just the content of law. In many law schools the Commission's call for change has still not been heeded.

The benefits of adopting these technologies include improved flexibility of these teaching modalities and their inclusiveness of those from non-English speaking backgrounds and those located remotely.

With regard to flexibility, students can undertake tasks at their own pace in their own time, which assists those working while at uni or those who have study-life balance issues. The non-threatening, non-face-to-face attribute of some of these modalities also suits those students who may not be comfortable with their level of English or Western ways of teaching and challenging (the lecturer's) authority. The flexibility of digital modalities can also help those who live in remote locations.

In addition, these techniques are based on the notion of narrative learning, where a case is followed from its inception to conclusion, giving the learning real-life context. Finally, advanced skills in technology are critically important for lawyers because of their increasing use in practice and the additional value-added counsel they make possible.

Traditionalists who oppose some of these approaches need to bear in mind several factors - starting with the fact that life is not as linear and structured as it once was. Next, the characteristics of social media mirror those of contemporary living and utilising them in the context of law helps facilitate the adaptability and creativity that great lawyers need. By not adapting to the needs of students many potentially excellent lawyers will be lost.

Research undertaken at institutions such as the Queensland University of Technology proves that these approaches work. There is proof they deliver ROI, and soon there will be proof that law's inability to be more proactive is leading to a lack of suitable law industry candidates.

If the law industry does not act more energetically, then the risks of a significant decrease of quality entrants to law and, by extension, the industry of law itself, are overwhelming. Surely this is a risk that we cannot take?

Des Butler is a professor of law at the Queensland University of Technology

Mike Russell is general manager for legal markets at LexisNexis Australia

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