Why research into legal education?

Traditionally, there has always been a certain weariness in the legal academy about research into legal education.  Like Orthrus from Greek mythology it is a two-headed beast straddling the disciplines of both education and law. So what skills do you need to successfully research this area?  Do you need to be an educationalist or a lawyer? Or both?

Developments in higher education in the United Kingdom mean that interest in legal education research has intensified, and the force of economic, policy, and regulatory developments mean that this trend will continue for the foreseeable future. These include:

  • The introduction of student tuition fees which have rightly created greater expectations on the part of students that they will be effectively taught;
  • the mission statements of many research active universities making it clear that they give equal parity to teaching and research;
  • career pathways are reflecting this seismic shift with teaching Chairs becoming available in many institutions;
  • the removal of caps on numbers in England has intensified competition for students, which means that those with the most ground breaking curricula, delivered in the most imaginative way, are the law schools most likely to succeed;
  • the professionalisation of legal teaching with academics now required to reflect on their teaching practice in various ways whether it be by way of an annual peer review or a requirement to obtain a teaching qualification;
  • employability which is often ranked in league tables on a par with research outputs in determining a law school’s standing creating further pressure to ensure that students are equipped with the right skills to succeed after graduation;
  • and the National Student Survey which is set to play a central role in the forthcoming Teaching Excellence Framework meaning that it is not enough to be a respected specialist in your area, you must have the ability to communicate it effectively to students.

Support systems for legal education researchers

There is an infrastructure to support legal pedagogical research.  The Association of Law Teachers draws its membership from both higher and further education.  Its refereed journal The Law Teacher: The International Journal of Higher Education publishes articles on all aspects of legal pedagogy. It provides a pathway for legal education researchers to develop as it has a Policy and Educational Developments section, which takes shorter articles where nascent legal education researchers can cut their teeth before submitting longer articles to the main section of the journal. It also holds an annual three-day conference where researchers can develop their ideas in a supportive environment. As you would expect from a community whose primary purpose is student development the atmosphere at the conference is nurturing and friendly.

In an ever increasingly competitive world a nurturing and friendly approach must also be matched with intellectual rigour. The Legal Education Network (LERN), which is mainly supported by the Association of Law Teachers and the Society of Legal Scholars, is aiming to raise the quality of legal education research. It offers grants to researchers in legal education; it runs many events to develop researchers’ skills on topics such as the development of empirical research skills and impact; and it has a mentoring system to assist in the development of novices in this area.

The Legal Education Foundation also promotes the advancement of legal education through grants.

Changes in teaching delivery

The world of legal education in the United Kingdom has also changed dramatically in the last decade not least through the rise and rise of clinical legal education. The bridging of theory and practice creates all manner of research needs such as the most effective methods of assessment as clinical legal education spreads from professional to academic courses. Clinical legal education conferences and journals such as The International Journal of Clinical Legal Education support this method of teaching delivery.

The growth of this type of scholarship has revealed a need for comparative analysis of education across different professions.  While lawyers have struggled on how best to assess clinical legal education they have become familiar with medical education’s literature. The medics have a longer tradition of bridging theory and practice and legal educationalists have been figuring out the best ways to translate this medical literature on assessment into a legal setting.

Changes in the delivery of legal services

Major changes in the delivery of legal services also mean that there is a need to keep a watching brief on whether or not legal education remains fit for purpose. The cuts in civil legal aid in April 2013 have increased the need for public legal education, and a refereed journal on Streetlaw is currently being planned.

Information technology is also having a major impact on the delivery of legal services whether it is software to assist parties to a divorce or apps to triage legal problems to reduce legal costs, and this inevitably raises questions as to how legal education can best respond.

Conclusion

Most legal education researchers approach the subject with a background in law.  Typically, they develop the educational research skills they need in response to the research questions they have identified. Support is available, particularly through LERN, for researchers to develop the empirical skills they may feel they lack.

Dedicated funding streams such as LERN and Legal Education Foundation grants have appeared, and others may well appear as interest into research in legal education further develops.

The rise in the status of teaching in higher education means that not only will a literature in legal education continue for the foreseeable future, it will develop as new teaching delivery methods appear and grow with journals looking at new areas of pedagogy. There is more than enough happening specifically within a legal context for researchers to be interested in legal education, as an area in its own right.

 Richard Owen, Essex Law Clinic Director

Essex Law School

November 2016

(Suggested citation: R. Owen, “Legal Education Research – Orthrus or the Next Big Thing?”, available at https://law-academics-unblocked.org/2016/11/15/richard-owen-legal-education-research-orthrus-or-the-next-big-thing)