Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A further look: Do clinics help law students develop professionalism? -- Part II

As I wrote in my previous post, Carole Silver, Amy Garver and Lindsay Watkins report in their wonderfully rich paper (available from a link on the Best Practices blog) that, among third-year law students surveyed with beta questions in the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE), no one feels that law school contributed to their growth as professionals more than those who took clinics do. But what do these students say they learned in clinics?

One way to answer that question is to look at the surveyed students' responses to another of the beta questions put to them:

In your experience at this law school, to what extent have you found the following settings effective for learning legal ethics? (Very much, quite a bit, some, very little, not applicable)

(a) Doctrinal classes

(b) Professional responsibility classes

(c) Clinics

(d) Paid legal work

(e) Externships or summer internships

In what follows, I interpret students' answers to this question as giving their judgments on how much, or how effectively, these five different "settings" contributed to their learning legal ethics, though the phrasing of the question is slightly different.

How valuable do students find clinics as settings for learning legal ethics?

Here is a first answer to this question, derived from the students’ answers to this beta survey inquiry: 51 percent of the responding students felt clinics contributed "very little" to their learning legal ethics. (11) That's startling. In fact, it is the highest negative score for any of the five settings. But what it turns out to mean is, in large part, that students who haven't taken clinics -- including in particular first-year students, who likely haven't yet been eligible to do so (since clinics are usually upper-year courses) -- don't recognize their value. 1L's rate clinics as a 1.46, about half-way between "very little" and "some." 3L's, in contrast, rate them at 2.63, a bit over half-way between "some" and "quite a bit." (13)

Interestingly, the higher 3L rating is not a result of a general impression shared by all 3L's. Those 3L's who've never taken a clinic still think poorly of them as settings for learning legal ethics (average scores of 1.51 or 1.67, the latter from students who didn't take a clinic but did have paid legal work experience). 3L's who did take clinics, on the other hand, score them much higher (average scores of 2.93 or 2.77, the latter from students who both took a clinic and had paid legal work experience). (15)

(A parenthetical issue of definition: The authors refer to students who "did a clinical experience." I take that to mean "took a clinic course," but the phrase could be read to encompass non-course experiences such as volunteer legal work. I also take it to refer, at least primarily, to live-client clinics, but "clinic" is a term with potentially broad definitions. At a couple of points (14, 21) the authors mention clinics using simulations, and these comments may imply that simulation courses fall in the "clinic" category here. “Externships or summer internships” are a separate “setting” category in this study, as reflected in the beta question quoted above.)

Let’s look a little more closely at those ratings of clinics from students who did take clinics. 3L's who took a clinic but didn't have a paid legal job gave clinics an average score of 2.93 as a setting for learning legal ethics, just below the "quite a bit" level. Their peers who also had a paid legal job gave clinics an average score of 2.77, a little further below "quite a bit." 2.93 and 2.77 are definitely good scores, but they aren't a 4, which would have meant that students saw clinics as contributing "very much" to their learning professional ethics. Nor are these the highest scores students gave to any setting, as we will see below.

Given the concentration on issues of ethics and values in many clinics, these scores are a bit surprising. What might account for the scores not being higher? Perhaps what's clearest is that 3L's do not see any law school setting, including clinics and jobs, as overall contributing "very much" to their learning legal ethics. The highest score any group of these students gave to any setting was in fact a 3.0 (“quite a bit”), the rating given to the professional responsibility course by students who had taken a clinic and had paid legal work. (15)

One possible explanation is that law students fail to realize how much they are learning. The reason need not be any fault on the students' part -- though one could of course speculate about students' yearning for "the answer," quick and clear – but instead might simply reflect the reality of the incremental nature of learning and understanding. The authors emphasize a finding that students increasingly see professional ethics benefit in all settings – except doctrinal courses – as they go through law school, and cite this as "some evidence that law students learn to 'connect the dots during their time in school with regard to understanding that the notion of 'legal ethics' transcends a variety of settings." (13) Perhaps this process isn't complete in the third year, and students will only recognize the full value of what they've learned years later.

Another possibility, of course, is that none of the settings law students experience does teach as much about professional ethics as we might like. Professional responsibility classes may be too dry and legalistic. Clinics may be too focused on the complexities of individual cases to give students a sense of broad understanding. Student jobs, as the authors point out (14), may be focused on legal research rather than on a "sufficiently big-picture exposure." We don't know.

What we do know is that 3L's who took clinics viewed their classroom professional responsibility courses as having as great an impact on their learning professional responsibility as clinics, or even slightly more. Specifically, 3L's who took clinics and didn't have paid legal work experience rated clinics and PR courses almost identically (2.94 for PR classes, 2.93 for clinics). Those who had both clinical and paid legal work experience rated the PR course at 2.98, clinic at 2.77, and their paid job at 2.89. (15) And 3L’s who took clinics didn’t even report that clinics were vastly more effective in teaching them about legal ethics than regular doctrinal courses (other than the professional responsibility course), which they rated at a 2.5. (15)

And so we come to the study's very intriguing result: 3L's who took clinics felt their law school experiences were more valuable in helping them grow as professionals than their peers did, but they did not report that clinics were the way they learned the most about ethics. How can this be? The authors are well aware of the problem; as they put it, “our findings suggest that clinical experience may enhance learning legal ethics, but more research is necessary to confirm the direct relationship.” (15) The next section of this post offers some hypotheses to explain these findings.

If clinics were not uniquely valuable for teaching legal ethics, why were they uniquely valuable in enhancing students’ appreciation of all settings’ value for this purpose?

One possible explanation is that these students understood ethics as a narrower field than the range of professionalism factors, as the authors speculate at 17. If this is so, then it might be that if they had been asked which of their experiences contributed most on these broader factors, their answer would have been clinics.

But another possibility is that the effect clinics had was not so much to teach students particular lessons as it was to alert them to the importance and value of learning. If, we might guess, what clinics did above all was to convince students that they had a huge amount to learn in order to undertake the work of a lawyer, then that realization might have caused those students to take every course in which they were enrolled more seriously. At that point, the students might have been right to value the professional responsibility course slightly more than clinics themselves for professional ethics – probably few clinics undertake comprehensive reviews of the rules of ethics, and professional responsibility courses can be precisely designed to do just this. Once a student realizes that the subject-matter of professional responsibility is important, the PR class may be the place to learn most of it. As the authors say, "[g]enerally, these findings point to the importance of law school classes for effective learning about legal ethics, and also to the role of clinical legal education as a means for deepening the effectiveness of these lessons." (21) We should remember, though, that even the PR course rates only as of "quite a bit" of value; providing students with multiple opportunities to learn this subject may be essential given that no one setting seems to completely provide the opportunity students may be looking for.

It’s striking, too, to remember the point with which we began: Those who took clinics liked almost everything better; those who did not, in comparison, found almost everything less helpful. In other words, those who got engaged in the study of law realized that their schools were delivering a lot to them; those who held themselves apart missed what was going on around them. Most of the 3L students surveyed at the 38 schools where these beta questions were asked did take clinics, and many took clinics and worked in paid legal jobs (in Figure 8, at 20, 2134 3L's had taken clinics, including 1012 who had taken clinics and held paid legal jobs). The minority who did neither or whose only exposure to practice was in paid jobs (in this same figure, 431 had done neither, along with 348 who had jobs but no clinical experience) were, according to their own reports, losing a lot of what was on offer.

Was this energizing effect simply the result of contact with the world of practice? As already suggested, the answer seems to be "no." Both clinics and paid legal work expose students to the world of practice, but as the authors observe (21), students who were exposed only via paid legal work were not as energized as those whose only exposure was via clinics. Clinic-only 3L's, compared to job-only 3L's, found more value in their doctrinal courses and in their professional responsibility courses – as well as in clinics, unsurprisingly. Also unsurprisingly, job-only students saw more value in jobs than clinic-only students did, but the clinic-only students saw more value even in jobs than did 3L's who did neither a clinic nor paid legal work. (15)

Admittedly, these data do not tell us clearly which way the cause-effect sequence runs. Could it be that students who are energized tend to take clinics, rather than that students who take clinics tend to get energized? In the nature of things, no doubt both processes are at work, but it is worth considering which process is more dominant. If clinics are more the pathway than the impetus, after all, we should consider whether other pathways could also be devised; one possibility, for example, is the increased use of externships and summer internships. (The study reports limited, but tantalizing, data on externships and internships (13): for 3L’s as a whole (including those who had no clinic or paid legal work experience), externships and internships ranked as somewhat more valuable settings for learning legal ethics than either clinics or jobs. The data available now do not permit the authors to correlate students’ assessments of settings with whether or not they themselves had externship/internship experience, but the authors hope to add questions in the future to permit such analysis. (14 n.56)) Still, in another sense this issue isn’t so important; even if clinics are merely a pathway, they are that, and law schools urgently need pathways that their energized students can follow.

All that said, I would be very surprised if clinics were merely the pathway; that idea would imply that students arrive at their upper years in law school either “energized” or “unenergized,” and nothing that happens thereafter affects that. But people change all the time. It’s implausible to imagine that the opportunities in clinics aren’t affecting those who take advantage of them. The 1L’s who view clinics so negatively include those students who will subsequently take clinics and will, by their third year, view clinics quite positively; those more positive 3L’s, therefore, are not simply the people who recognized the value of clinics from the start. If students learn to value clinics more as a result of taking them, it seems reasonable to infer that the more general energizing effect I’ve hypothesized is also something that largely results from taking clinics rather than the other way around. Indeed, the authors have observed that their data “indicate that in each year of law school, students increase their evaluation of effectiveness for every setting except doctrinal classes.” (13) It appears – though the authors do not speak to this precise point – that the greatest such increase is the increase that occurs among the students who take clinics.

‬Clinics thus do appear to be specially energizing. It’s worth adding that there is some evidence also of a synergy between clinics and paid legal work. Those students who had both experiences were slightly more positive than anyone else about doctrinal classes and professional responsibility classes, and considerably more positive about the value of paid legal work. The only setting for which this group was not the most positive was clinics, but this group was still decidedly affirmative about clinics too (2.77 compared to clinic-only students' 2.93). The paper does not provide aggregate overall effectiveness scores for students with different experiences, but it seems that the students with both clinic and paid work were the most satisfied group.

If there is such an energizing effect, how does it operate? The authors suggest that students “learn to ‘connect the dots’ during their time in school” (13), and I would agree that part of what is happening is this sort of cognitive change. But few things happen without motivation, and so I am inclined to see the energizing as resulting also from students’ excitement, focused ambition and, no doubt, anxiety – all of which, along with new intellectual appreciation, the experience of the clinic may foster. If that’s what clinics do, how do they do it? The authors ask many valuable questions about this (21), and it is a very important issue. If we can figure out which clinics produce these effects, and from what aspects of their work, we’ll be better positioned to shape the curricula of the future.

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