Saturday, July 23, 2011

Do clinics help students develop professionalism?

What do clinics teach, and how? These are important and mysterious questions. A forthcoming article by Carole Silver, Amy Garver and Lindsay Watkins, Unpacking the Apprenticeship of Professional Identity and Purpose: Insights from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (available from a link on the "Best Practices in Legal Education" blog), confirms the value of clinics but underlines how much we don't know about how that value is created. Relying on "beta" questions posed to students at 38 accredited law schools as part of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE), the authors sought to measure students' own judgments about how much "your experience at this law school contributed to your development" in several areas of professionalism. (7, 23)

What they found, focusing on data concerning full-time third-year students (3L's), was that "students with a clinical experience, whether or not they also had paid legal work experience, reported higher positive gains across each item of development." (21) 3L's with clinical experience reported higher gains than their peers who had no clinical coursework, even if the no-clinic students had held paid legal jobs. In fact students who took clinics but didn't have paid legal work experience reported almost the same impact on their growth as students who took clinics and did have paid legal work experience as well; the paid jobs didn't seem to add much at all to the impact of the clinic by itself. On these measures, it seems, quite simply, that the most effective way to foster students' professional growth is for them to take clinics.

Now one might quarrel with the idea of self-reported development. Will anyone say that he or she failed to develop? Perhaps not, but the question did not ask that; it asked whether "your experience at this law school contributed to your development" -- so a student could report that her experiences had not contributed without thereby saying that she herself had not developed. In any event, the responding students did give nuanced answers. The students responded to the five questions put to them by, on average, putting their development on each criterion at between 2 and 3 on a 4-point scale -- and some students reported less development than others did. Those 3L's who never held a paid job or took a clinic reported development scores on the five different criteria ranging from 2.05 to 2.58; those who took clinics reported scores from 2.39 to 2.81. (21) On each question, moreover, there were sizable percentages, sometimes majorities, of students who reported that their experience at law school had contributed only "some" or "very little" to their development. (18)

Finally, it's important to remember that even if all the students overestimated their own development, those 3L's who took clinics reported more impact on their development than those who did not have a clinic course. It might be argued that these data show only that students who took clinics developed particularly unrealistic impressions of their own development -- but there's no apparent reason why that should be so. (The authors don't provide similar tabulations for 2L's, but 3L's are the students most likely to have actually had either clinical or work experience, and so are the ones most likely to manifest the impact of the full range of possible law school experiences.)

Moreover, the five professionalism criteria seem to capture some important aspects of growth towards a professional identity. Students were asked (23) how much their experience at their law school had contributed to their development in:
(a) Building positive relationships with your future clients
(b) Deepening your capacity for moral reasoning
(c) Preparing you to handle the stresses of law practice
(d) Strengthening your commitment to serving the public good
(e) Acting with integrity in both personal and professional settings
It's not absolutely clear to me that all students should "strengthen their commitment to serving the public good"; some students might already be fully committed, and not need that commitment strengthened, and it's even possible that some students might come to feel they had been too self-sacrificing and might -- perhaps even rightly -- conclude that they should pay more attention to their own needs and less to the abstract "public good." But my hesitation on this score may not have been shared by many students, for 83 % said that their experience in law school had strengthened this commitment "some," "quite a bit" or "very much." (18) And overall these five criteria certainly mark significant achievements for students moving into professional life.

Since the LSSSE data suggest that clinical experience lays the groundwork for improvement on important aspects of professionalism, these data offer an important reason to value clinics. But in my next post I'll turn to the puzzling question of exactly what students learn in their clinics.

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