Defining Experiential Legal Education

1 J. Experiential Learning 1 (2014-15)

U Denver Legal Studies Research Paper No. 14-50

27 Pages Posted: 19 Sep 2014 Last revised: 1 Jul 2015

See all articles by David I. C. Thomson

David I. C. Thomson

University of Denver, Sturm College of Law

Date Written: September 17, 2014


Legal Education in the United States is undergoing a renaissance. In many ways, that renaissance has been building and growing for the last two decades, but in the last several years it has truly begun to flourish. Much of the focus of the renaissance has been in practical (sometimes called “practice-based”) legal education. Of course practical training was the only kind available until about 1870, so practical legal education is not new; indeed it has been around for over 100 years. But what is new is the extraordinary growth and hybridization of experiential learning in law schools across the country in the last few years.

As with many such periods of significant growth and change, however, some classification and a deeper understanding of the types and methods of experiential learning in law schools would be helpful. Definitions and methods for classification are important because they provide a foundation for understanding and clear communication. This article seeks to provide that definitional understanding, with the goal of speeding up this good work, not putting it in a box. It provides a definition of experiential learning for legal education, as well as a method for application of the definition to courses currently in the law school curriculum as well as those that might be considered for inclusion in the curriculum of the future.

Part I of the article provides a brief history of experiential learning in law, explores the major sources for a possible new definition of experiential learning, and describes the limitations of the definitional elements that we currently have. Part II argues that the definitions we currently have are not only limited, but their limitations are being exposed by the growth and variety in experiential learning opportunities currently being offered in many law schools. Part III offers a new definition for experiential learning in law, together with a series of questions that can be used in applying the definition. Finally, Part IV offers application of the new definition to examples of course work that are currently being offered in law schools around the country, so that the reader can see the definition at work.

Suggested Citation

Thomson, David I. C., Defining Experiential Legal Education (September 17, 2014). 1 J. Experiential Learning 1 (2014-15), U Denver Legal Studies Research Paper No. 14-50, Available at SSRN: or

David I. C. Thomson (Contact Author)

University of Denver, Sturm College of Law ( email )

2255 E. Evans Avenue
Denver, CO 80208
United States


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