Alexandris, G., Buontrogianni, M, and Djafarova, N. (2015) Ground-breaking program for Ontario Law School Graduates – Virtual Law Firms, Berlin: OEB Conference
Online, experiential learning
Experiential learning is a very popular concept in education these days, but it is not always well understood, and in particular some see experiential learning and online learning as contradictory. It’s important then to have examples of successful online experiential programs.
Ryerson University in Toronto has one such program. Although hybrid rather than fully online, the online component is both substantial and essential.
One of the many challenges in legal training is moving new law school graduates into the real world of law practice. Although most graduates become articled to a particular law firm, they are often ill-prepared for the actual work, which is much more skills- and context-based than the more theory- and content-based approach in law school.
The Law Society of Upper Canada, which regulates the profession in Ontario, recently introduced changes to its licensing process, requiring a new ‘transition to practice’ training that focuses on skills development. Although Ryerson does not have its own law school, it does have a strong reputation for innovative approaches to skills development in higher education, and as a result in 2013 the Law Society of Upper Canada chose Ryerson to develop the transition to practice program, now called the Law Practice Program (LPP).
Ryerson had to develop an experience-based program, drawing initially 220 participants during each of its first two years, spread across the whole province of Ontario and beyond, but also capable of expansion if necessary. The program required developing realistic cases and practices, and a teaching approach that of necessity directly involved ‘real’ law firms and busy, practising lawyers and judges as mentors. At the same time, the training must not interfere with the actual practice of law while participants were engaged in training.
The overall program strategy
Ryerson turned to two of its centres, the Chang School of Continuing Education’s Centre for Digital Education, and the Interpersonal Skills Teaching Centre, which offers simulated learning and teaching of interpersonal communications skills.
Externally Ryerson partnered with the Ontario Bar Association. This enabled Ryerson to annually engage over 250 lawyers across the province as mentors and contributors to the program, and 220 law firms and organizations for work placements. This also allowed the program to integrate technology and legal resources already used in the law profession.
The program adopts a hybrid approach, with a four month practical training period consisting of 14 weeks online and three separate weeks on campus. During these seventeen weeks, candidates work on simulated files developed by practising lawyers. This training is then followed by a four month work placement, where participants work on actual files.
The practical training component consists of developing skills and competency in the following areas:
- professionalism and ethics
- analytical skills
- oral and written communication
- client management
- practice management.
using seven practice areas of law:
- administrative law
- business law
- civil litigation
- criminal law
- family law
- real estate law
- wills and estates law.
This is where the program becomes unique and innovative. There are several components of the design.
a. Virtual ‘firms’
Virtual firms are created with four participants, and an external lawyer as a mentor. Each firm also has multiple clients, actors specially trained to play a specific role. There are weekly firm meetings, often in virtual, but real-time, format.
b. Specially designed learning resources
Participants have access to more than 90 pieces of simulated legal correspondence, several specialized legal applications and databases, 40 custom-made videos, and 20 learning modules.
A number of multiple choice assessments and interactive learning objects have been designed to facilitate comprehension and understanding of legal issues and the development of skills.
There are also in-person and virtual presentations by experts in key competency and substantive legal areas, and participants also have to meet virtually and in-person with clients, other lawyers and judges.
A wide variety of tools are used for communication between participants, mentors and clients, including:
- a standard learning management system
- online communications tools used within the legal profession (Clio, Webex)
Participants are assessed through their interaction with lawyers and judges during the program, including live legal presentations and argument.
The main success of the program, now in its second year, has been the ability of the participants ‘to hit the ground running’ when they join a law firm/legal employer. Employers’ responses to the program have been generally highly favourable (see here), although no formal evaluation of the program has yet been conducted. The strong involvement of lawyers and judges as well as law firms has ensured that the training is both relevant and practical, while the firms benefit from better prepared future employees.
The creation of virtual cases, processes and procedures, the use of simulations and virtual meetings and virtual firms, and work placements under supervision, have combined to provide a strong, experience-based approach to learning which both participants and mentors have found highly motivating.
Lastly the ability for participants and mentors to work primarily online has provided the flexibility necessary for busy, working professionals.
There are of course many other online experiential learning programs, such as the virtual reality-based program on custom border services for Canada Border Service Agents at Loyalist College, Ontario. I would welcome other contributions or examples for future blog posts.
Since 1st January 2016 I am a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University, but I have not been engaged in any way with the design, development or delivery of this program. I am though indebted to Gina Alexandris, the program director for the LPP, for her help and advice in preparing this post.