Experiential Learning in Law School and Beyond

Published: Jan 25, 2023

 Career Readiness       Law       Workplace Issues       
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What is Experiential Learning?

You may have heard the term experiential learning, but what exactly is it? Experiential learning started with John Dewey back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dewey was an educational reformer who felt students should learn through real life experiences to enable better retention of the material they were being taught.[i] In the 1970s, David Kolb took things further and developed the Experiential Learning Theory. Kolb’s theory has four stages:  concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation.[ii]

  1. Concrete experience: This is the first stage of experiential learning and refers to the direct, hands-on experience of a situation or activity.
  2. Reflective observation: In this stage, the learner reflects on their experience, considering what they observed and what they learned from it.
  3. Abstract conceptualization: Next, the learner uses their reflections to develop abstract concepts and generalizations about the experience.
  4. Active experimentation: Finally, the learner uses their newly acquired concepts and generalizations to plan and carry out new actions.[iii]

The goal of utilizing this theory is that active engagement in the learning process will create a better learning opportunity for the participants.

Experiential Learning in Law School

Experiential learning has long been a part of the law school curriculum by giving students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience through internships, clinics, simulations, and other forms of practical training.[iv] These course offerings are designed to complement traditional classroom learning by allowing students to apply what they have learned in a real-world setting. In 2014, the American Bar Association Standard 303(a)(3) was added. The standard requires law students to complete six hours of experiential courses.[v]

Every law school has different course options to meet the ABA standard. One example of experiential learning is clinical education that allows students to work on real cases under the supervision of a licensed attorney. Clinics can cover a wide range of legal areas such as immigration, public interest, criminal defense, and more. This type of program gives students an opportunity to gain practical skills and experience while also providing legal services to underserved communities.

Another example is through internships and externships, where students can work in law firms, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and other legal settings. This allows students to gain experience in a specific area of law, such as corporate law or litigation, and provides an opportunity to network with professionals in the field.

You can also get your experiential learning through online course work. Simulation classes offer experience like contract drafting, financial transactions, and trial advocacy. Moot Court and Law Review participation also meet the criteria. No matter which offering you choose, experiential programs can offer a variety of benefits to students, including:

  1. Hands-on experience: By participating in real-world legal work, students can gain practical skills and experience that can help them succeed in their future careers.
  2. Application of knowledge: Experiential learning allows students to apply what they have learned in the classroom to real-world situations, which can help them better understand and retain the material.
  3. Career preparation: Experiential learning programs such as internships and clinics can provide students with valuable connections and experience in a specific area of law, which can be beneficial when seeking employment after graduation.
  4. Professional development: Through experiential learning, students can develop critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills, which are essential for success in any career.
  5. Community service: Clinics and other experiential learning programs often provide legal services to underserved communities, which allows students to give back while also gaining valuable experience.
  6. Increased self-awareness: Experiential learning allows students to reflect on their own learning process and develop a better understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses.
  7. Increased motivation and engagement: Experiential learning is often more engaging and motivating than traditional classroom learning, which can lead to increased participation and a more positive attitude towards learning.
  8. Increased sense of purpose: Experiential learning can create a sense of purpose and relevance, which can help students to see the value of their education and the impact they can have in the world.

Overall, experiential learning in law school can provide students with valuable practical skills and experience that can help them succeed in their future careers. At the very beginning of your law school journey, make a plan on how to utilize the experiential courses offered at your school so you can land your dream job after graduation.[vi]

Experiential Learning after Law School

Experiential learning doesn't have to stop after law school. There are many opportunities for experienced lawyers to continue to engage in experiential learning to grow their careers and maintain their professional development.[vii] Some examples include:

  1. Continuing legal education (CLE): Many jurisdictions offer CLE credit for lawyers who participate in events like mock trials, simulated courtroom experiences, and negotiation exercises.
  2. Pro bono work: This can be a valuable way for seasoned lawyers to gain hands-on experience in a new area of the law while making a meaningful impact on the community.
  3. Public interest law: Experienced lawyers can also work in public interest law organizations, where they can use their skills and experience to make a difference in the lives of underserved communities.
  4. Entrepreneurship: Many lawyers use their skills and experience to start their own legal practices or businesses. This can provide opportunities for experiential learning outside the practice of law in areas like office management, human resources, and marketing.
  5. Legal Research and Writing: Engaging in legal research and writing, either individually or as part of a team, can help lawyers to develop their analytical, writing, and critical thinking skills either inside their own practice areas or in an area of personal interest.
  6. Teaching:  Lawyers can look for teaching opportunities at law schools or other educational institutions, which can provide the chance to share their knowledge and experience with the next generation of lawyers and law adjacent professionals.

Experienced lawyers have many ways to continue to engage in experiential learning to grow their careers and maintain their professional development. It’s also a great way to keep yourself engaged in the profession and to prevent stagnation and burnout.

[i] https://www.teachthought.com/learning/pedagogy-john-dewey-summary/

[ii] https://experientiallearninginstitute.org/resources/what-is-experiential-learning/

[iii] https://www.aee.org/what-is-experiential-education

[iv] www.aals.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/AALS-policy-Vocabulary-list-FINAL.pdf

[v] www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/misc/legal_education/Standards/2017-2018ABAStandardsforApprovalofLawSchools/2017_2018_standards_chapter3.authcheckdam.pdf

[vi] Wang, A. (2022, March 22). Law School Solved: How to Make An Experiential Learning Plan That Will Get You Hired. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/law-school-solved-how-make-experiential-learning-plan-allison-wang/?trk=articles_directory

[vii] McWilliams, A. (2022, November 9). Experiential Learning for Grown-Ups:  Personal growth doesn’t have to stop at graduation. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-awesome-career/202211/experiential-learning-grown-ups