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‘Legal Skills for Citizens of Change’ Conference at University of Leicester explores legal skills from multiple perspectives

Maribel Canto-Lopez, Arwen Joyce, Nataly Papadopoulou

Aug. 11, 2023

Dr Maribel Canto-Lopez is an Associate Professor and Deputy Director of Education at Leicester Law School. Dr Arwen Joyce and Dr Nataly Papadopoulou are Lecturers at Leicester Law School.


There has been much discussion in the past few decades about the role of ‘legal skills’ in an undergraduate law degree (Duncan 1991; Dunn, Maharg, and Roper 2023) and more recently on the relationship between legal skills, authentic or experiential learning, and employability skills (Cejnar, Valiente Reidl, and Fletcher 2023). A one-day conference devoted to this topic was held on 7 December 2022 at Leicester Law School, which brought together legal academics, students, and recent alumni to consider the relevance of ‘legal skills’ from a variety of topical perspectives and viewpoints. The event was funded by the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education.


The conference was divided into four sessions: 1) Reflections on legal skills and socio-economic inequality; 2) Technology and technological skills in the law school; 3) Acquiring legal skills in law school; and 4) a student and alumni-led closing panel. Legal academics from across the UK shared their research, and attendees had the opportunity to contribute their views, which contributed to a rich and wide-ranging discussion.


Dr Maribel Canto-Lopez kicked off the conference with welcome remarks that framed the event and opened the discussion. She raised the possibility that the legal skills students believe they should be gaining in law school could differ from the legal skills academics and employers consider to be important. Dr Jessica Guth (Birmingham City School of Law) followed this introduction with a keynote address titled, ‘What are Legal Skills anyway: Some reflections on learning to think like a lawyer – and the importance of unlearning it’. Dr Guth started by noting that legal skills are not easy to define, and that the debates about legal skills have not changed much. She argued that while there is general agreement that teaching skills is valuable in an undergraduate law degree, educators need to be aware of and resist emphasising employability skills to the detriment of teaching law as an educational and intellectual pursuit. Dr Guth then offered her perspective that a healthy imagination and sharp critical thinking skills have an important role to play in developing the skills needed to be real citizens of change.



During the first panel, presenters and participants reflected on the importance of legal skills in light of socio-economic inequality among law students. In her presentation titled, ‘A Law Degree is not like an expensive car’: Legal Skills and Students’ Perceptions’, Dr Canto-Lopez noted the importance of responding to socio-economic inequality in the law school and ensuring that legal skills are made accessible to students from non-traditional backgrounds with differing amounts of social capital. She discussed her recent empirical study that asked students which skills they value most, which skills they think employers value most, and which skills higher education should prioritise. Interestingly, while most respondents said knowledge and expertise were valued most by employers and should be prioritised in higher education, most respondents said it was most important for them to develop their imagination and critical thinking skills while at university. A set of focus groups helped to dig deeper into the results of the survey and raised additional interesting questions. Dr Rita D’Alton-Harrison (Royal Holloway University of London) also discussed the challenges faced by students from non-traditional backgrounds in her presentation, ‘Skilling Up for Competency’. She offered that there are tools and interventions, like mentoring, job placement schemes and the National Diverse Student Network, that can help students gain a variety of legal skills. Laura Bee (Legal Advice Clinic Director, University of Leicester) rounded out the panel with a presentation on ‘Bridging the gap: Socio-economic inequality and the Law Clinic’. As Clinic Director, Bee has sought to make Leicester’s clinic programme more inclusive and accessible by allowing students to participate through a clinic module, on an extra-curricular basis, through a vacation scheme and in a variety of roles. Reducing barriers to involvement in the clinic is important because the experience equips students with valuable employability skills.



The second panel addressed technology and technological skills in the law school. Andy Unger (London South Bank University) presented first on the optional Law and Technology module he developed in 2017. Students on the module work in groups to design high-tech solutions to real clients’ legal problems. Feedback on the module from both students and clients has been very positive. Dr Nataly Papadopoulou and Konstantinos Georgiadis (echo.legal) then gave a joint presentation called ‘Technological Skills in the Law School: An engine for change?’. Their aim was to address myths around what LegalTech is (and is not). They argued that law students can develop valuable skills by engaging with LegalTech during their studies no matter what career they pursue.


The final academic panel of the day addressed broader questions around when, where and how legal skills are acquired in law school. Dr Emma Jones’ (University of Sheffield) presentation, ‘Soft Skills for Hard Times: Emotional Competence and Law’ discussed her work on the importance of emotional competence in learning and teaching law. She argued that a better understanding of the emotional component of teaching, learning, and practicing law will help institutions design programmes to enhance learning and help skills development. Paul McConnell (University of Birmingham) followed with a presentation called, ‘Balancing Academic, Professional and Societal Skills in an Undergraduate Law Curriculum’. He noted the importance of focusing on the academic core of the law degree while also providing transferable and professional skills. One way Birmingham has addressed this for international students is to offer summer schools with a professional practice focus for students interested in working in Canada, Dubai, Hong Kong, India, Nigeria, and Singapore. Dr Arwen Joyce concluded by sharing preliminary results from a recent empirical study, conducted with staff and students at Leicester Law School, assessing the role of professional skills in a law degree. The survey found some overlap but also some interesting divergence between what staff and students understand to be professional skills.


The day concluded with a student and alumni panel. Members of the panel shared their experiences and corroborated many of the themes raised during the conference. One alum shared she felt her minority background was a hindrance when interviewing for jobs. Another alum supported the idea of LegalTech skills being introduced into the curriculum and noted that many law firms are now looking for students with those skills. This final panel offered a fresh take on the themes and debates raised during the conference and demonstrated the benefits of giving students and recent alumni an opportunity to share their perspectives.


References

Cejnar, Leela, Elisabeth Valiente Reidl, and Jennifer Fletcher. 2023. ‘Designing Higher Education Experiential Learning for the Post-Pandemic Hybrid Workforce’. The Law Teacher 0 (0): 1–4.

Duncan, Nigel. 1991. ‘Why Legal Skills‐whither Legal Education?’ The Law Teacher 25 (2): 142–49.

Dunn, Rachel, Paul Maharg, and Victoria Roper, eds. 2023. What Is Legal Education for?: Reassessing the Purposes of Early Twenty-First Century Learning and Law Schools. Routledge.


 

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