Hands-on approach to legal education recognised in university awards

A unique teaching approach that encourages students to go beyond the textbook, and consider how the law does and doesn’t work in the real world, has seen the ANU College of Law’s Associate Professor Tony Foley awarded this year’s Vice-Chancellor’s citation for outstanding contributions to student learning.

The citation, which recognises Dr Foley’s efforts in implementing the ANU College of Law’s clinical legal education program, was presented by ANU Chancellor, Gareth Evans AC QC, last week.

“I’m delighted to receive this award, particularly as it recognises the outstanding contribution our clinical programs make to student learning, rather than simply celebrating a ‘sage on the stage’,” Tony said.

“Our clinical law program uses an approach that exemplifies the ANU College of Law’s focus on providing opportunities for students to learn through doing.

“Whether in undergraduate law, our distinctive JD, professional legal training and development programs in migration and military law, the common thread is a hands-on commitment to developing individuals.”

Designed to foster independent learning and promote reflective practice in future lawyers, the College’s clinical legal education programs sees ANU law students spending up to 13 weeks working onsite with community practices like the ACT Youth Law Centre and the Welfare Rights Legal Centre, or online with NGOs in developing countries via Professor Simon Rice’s International Social Justice Clinic.

Framed by an emphasis on research-driven and experiential methods of teaching, Tony said clinical law programs moved away from traditional approaches to teaching law – which required students to acquire a new way of thinking – to instead provide opportunities for students to see and experience the law in action.

“As law students learn to ‘think like a lawyer’, they also learn the role brings with it significant social responsibility.

“Our clinical programs are designed to support this, and supplement what students are learning in other courses. Often, clinical programs provide a student’s first exposure to real clients with real legal problems, and allow them to work alongside practising lawyers.

“Research tells us students construct meaning from their learning, but for this to happen effectively, we need to align course aims, activities and assessments in such a way that students can actually do the things they are being taught.”

Beyond allowing students to see the law in action, Tony said the program provided an environment that encouraged students to consider and engage with the work they were doing on a personal level.

“This is what makes teaching in the program such a real joy – the excitement of students is palpable, and the meetings where they report on their experiences after a busy week are always so vivid.

“The result is a dynamic and unpredictable learning environment which provides students with a first-hand perspective, encouraging them to think about how the law does and doesn’t work, including exploring issues of equality, fairness and justice.”

Tony said many students left the program with a renewed and refreshed ideal that their legal qualifications would enable them to change their world.

“The clinical law program makes a lovely capstone to a law degree, where students graduate believing in themselves and their capacity to make a difference.

“My approach – and the objective of all the College’s programs – is to provide students with the opportunities, environments and insights to reflect on their potential, now and in the years to come.

“Better still, our clinical law programs allow for this reflection to happen at the coalface of legal practice. For students and teachers alike, who wouldn’t enjoy the opportunity to teach and learn this way?”

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team