“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Albert Einstein.

The legal profession is undergoing a revolutionary change right before our very eyes. The once conservative and traditional industry is being forced to rethink everything from qualification routes to fee earner structures, as the ongoing discussion of digitalisation and automation continues. Clients can now be instantly contacted anywhere in the world through a smartphone. Lawyers are expected to keep up with global developments and anticipate how it will impact their clientele. Cloud-based collaborative working has promised greater flexibility and collaborative opportunities. Even entirely new roles, such as Legal Tech Managers and in-house freelance paralegals, are being created as a result of such changes.

Amongst these changes are a new appreciation for the broadening skillset that lawyers now require. Clients have always expected their lawyers to have excellent negotiation, advocacy and interviewing skills, but it has not always been clear where this development should take place in the legal education ‘timeline’ of an aspiring legal professional. The recent Bellwether Report echoed the importance of such skills, with 9 out of 10 solicitors agreeing they are of increasing importance if lawyers are to be successful. In his article for Forbes, Mark Cohen surmises perfectly that “[legal] practice is once again becoming the province of those lawyers best equipped to engage in it.”

Despite the above demands, legal education has remained somewhat resistant to change. The overwhelming majority of UK universities teach law via the historical lecture-focused approach to learning, with mooting and practical skills-based opportunities often only offered via optional societies and student-run events. Essential legal and personal skills, like negotiating, interviewing and researching, can therefore easily fail to receive the equal treatment they deserve alongside knowing what the letter of the law is. Interpersonal and group skills are more likely to be underdeveloped in a solely independent, private study style. One university, however, is aiming to change just that.

The University of York’s unique problem-based learning (‘PBL’) approach to teaching law is designed to teach students through life-like simulations of the legal problems that lawyers are tasked with solving. It aims to create a holistic approach to legal education, wherein future lawyers both know the law and have experience in how they can use it to solve client needs. In their own words:

“This is a modern, dynamic learning method that ensures you experience and understand law in its social and theoretical contexts, and helps to develop the skills and techniques you will need to work as a professional.”

York Law School Website.

So how does it work? I spoke with Dr Laurence Etherington, Admissions Tutor at York Law School (and ex-lecturer of mine) about PBL learning and how it translates to the world of law.

Photo courtesy of the University of York/Alex Holland.

So, what exactly is PBL?

PBL established itself in the world of medicine before it made its way to legal education. Its structure is something like this, all guided with an academic mentor and complimentary lectures/reading throughout:

  • You and your group (Student Law Firm) will be presented with a legal problem, often in the form of a client’s email or similar
  • As a group, utilise a legal, solution-based approach to analyse the problem and identify its key parties, interests and facts
  • Brainstorm the legal questions that need answering, as well as any broader ‘normative’ academic concepts
  • In private or group study, research the answers to your self-generated ‘Learning Outcomes’
  • Present your feedback and complete your solution to the problem, before beginning the cycle again by picking up a new problem

I personally found that the result of this process means you not only finish the process fully satisfied with your legal knowledge, but can now apply it to future situations through the (often memorable) ‘non-legal’ details of the scenario you’ve just tackled. You generate vital legal research skills, an ability to work with others and fantastic opportunities to develop your interpersonal and legal skills along the way. For those of you more visually inclined, you can check out the Law School’s own explanatory videos below – with a familiar face featuring too…

How does this PBL process then help develop a student’s knowledge beyond simply ‘knowing what the law is’?

LE: “PBL involves a lot of research, still with support but less direction than more traditional approaches. So a key skill is the student learning how to research effectively and how to identify what they need to learn. There can sometimes be a misconception that PBL results in a focus solely on practical issues. There is no reason why this should be the case as the aim is to understand Problems, not (simply) solve, or provide answers to, these. In fact, the collaborative approach to learning should provide a great foundation for more critical perspectives, with a variety of views in the regular debates and discussions. The depth of analysis of problem scenarios also provides a deep understanding of the context within which the legal questions arise – why they matter, as well as how they come about.  

Regular, intense, small group sessions mean that students should be able to develop their team-working, and related, skills. Really importantly, effective collaboration should become second-nature with the roles and responsibilities required for approaching Problems being identified and allocated to group members. Students also have the opportunity to learn more about themselves, what they like doing and what they are good at (which are usually the same things). I think that there is also less opportunity to shy away from things and so students can be stretched out of their comfort zone (hopefully in a supportive environment).”

Why should a law student consider PBL over more traditional teaching methods?

“That’s an interesting one because I wouldn’t say that all students should choose PBL. It’s really a matter of thinking about whether this style of learning is right for them (and it won’t be for everyone). I would also say that, although there are certain features which I think are very different and which may provide some advantages, that isn’t saying that PBL is automatically ‘better’ than other styles of learning for all students. However, with those caveats, I think that these are three of some of those potentially advantageous differences.

  1. The social nature of PBL study means that students might find that they are more involved in the subject and their studies. That can be in a general sense of individually and collectively having to take more responsibility for their own learning and development, but also in quite specific ways, such as having to share research and debate complex issues. Explaining is a great way of developing deeper understanding, of course. Debate and discussion is obviously a part of most (possibly all) Law programmes. But I think that PBL demands more regular and deeper engagement with this aspect of study, making it a particularly rich experience.

    On the ‘responsibility’ point, the degree to which PBL involves guidance can vary significantly but this is more limited than most other approaches. As well as encouraging more independent research, requiring students to identify their own question puts them in charge of the exploration – with flexibility around the specific issues and areas that are covered. This also helps students to develop ‘legal awareness’ in the sense of being able to see the world through the ‘lawyer’s lens’ – being able to identify where and how the legal issues arise for themselves.
  2. Again, this can vary according to the format used, but with law it is natural to approach PBL through a less rigid frame than might be the case elsewhere. Problem scenarios raise ‘messy’ sets of issues and these are not always limited to single-subject areas. That approach should help students understand that traditional subject areas overlap in many ways – with property law being an important aspect of some theft cases, and tort and criminal liability arising out of the same acts, for example.
  3. Finally, I also think that PBL is really engaging – students are generally very enthusiastic about their learning. It is usually a lot of fun, despite being very serious, which is fantastic for students and staff.” 

How can PBL experiences help applicants stand out in application processes, for both law and non-law careers?

“I guess that this flows from the features that have already been mentioned. Independence and willingness to take responsibility are obviously really important for employers. Less obviously, that can also include understanding when guidance is needed – being self-aware enough to know the limits of your current knowledge and skills.

Problem-solving is often mentioned by employers as a key skill. PBL can help with recognising the different perspectives and approaches that might be taken, so that a variety of options might be developed and evaluated. The ability to deconstruct problems, breaking them down into manageable and meaningful components within complex scenarios, and to then develop a strategy for addressing the issues raised by these, is tremendously helpful.

Most obviously, the team-working skills and (very importantly) extensive experience of working in different groups, should be invaluable. Of course, there is a question of how much PBL actually develops students in this way, rather than attracting students who are already well-equipped and interested in PBL’s style. I’m not sure how much that is the case, but a PBL student should be more likely to have these abilities and they will also have had extensive opportunities to further develop them.”

I’d like to thank Dr Etherington for his comments on PBL in law, as well as the University of York for allowing me to use their photos. If you’d like to learn more about PBL, feel free to get in touch with me or the Law School at the links below.

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