Experiential Education and Access-to-Justice within U.S. Law Schools: Designing and Evaluating an Access-to-Justice Service Learning Program within the First-Year Curriculum
7 Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality 88 (2019)
53 Pages Posted: 22 May 2019
Date Written: April 22, 2019
In this Article, we describe the creation and evaluation of a curricular intervention designed to help first-year law students develop lawyering skills while fostering their ethical and social-emotional development. We call this curricular intervention an Access-to-Justice Service Learning Program. We believe that, at the time of this writing, this was the first such program administered within the first-year curriculum of a U.S. law school.
We designed and launched this Access-to-Justice Service Learning Program in Fall 2016 within the first-year curriculum of the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. In so doing, we taught 187 first-year law students how to put into practice human-centered design thinking, perspective-taking, and professional skills to promote access to justice. While human-centered design thinking is increasingly being woven into law school curricula in upper-level project management courses to address access-to-justice problems—including at Stanford Law School, Harvard Law School, and Georgetown University Law Center1—this Access-to-Justice Service Learning Program was introduced within the first-year curriculum to teach students the professional skills, human-centered design thinking, and problem-solving techniques necessary to enhance access to justice for low-income members of society.
U.S. law schools are increasingly being called to train their students to become ethical members of society who address access-to-justice challenges that the public experiences when encountering and navigating the civil justice system. Millions of Americans lack meaningful access to justice and suffer from unmet legal needs. For most low-income and many middle-income people living in the United States, the inability to receive legal advice or secure legal representation renders our civil justice system inaccessible. Absent legal advice, many Americans often fail to understand that legal relief is available for the problems they encounter “at the intersection of civil law and everyday adversity” such as problems that affect human needs, including shelter, livelihood, and the care of dependents. Moreover, even when people do realize their problems are potentially addressable through law, most poor and many middle-income people are left to navigate complex procedures and bewildering bureaucracies in search of legal relief without counsel, which only serves to compound their problems. Given the reality that many Americans are unable to defend their legal rights, wide swaths of U.S. society become vulnerable to those who, casting aside ethics and morality, have an economic incentive to engage in abuse. In turn, interlocking webs of social, environmental, financial, and health problems stemming from unmet legal needs metastasize into social, psychological, environmental, financial, and health problems that imperil human well-being.
This Access-to-Justice Service Learning Program was designed to help law students understand the values that guide our profession—including a commitment to the rule of law, access to justice, and public service—and to help law students empathize with those affected by the civil justice system. First-year law students learned the perspectives of affected members of the community and were matched with legal-aid partners, such as Indiana Legal Services, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, and the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society. These first-year law students worked with community partners to help deliver legal services more effectively to low-income members of the community by engaging in a human-centered access-to-justice design process.
Our evaluation of the program reveals the curriculum may be promising as an intervention in the first-year curriculum within U.S. law schools. The first-year law students who took part grew not only as individuals, but by working together in teams, they also developed as future members of the legal profession.
The Article will proceed as follows: In Part I, we will situate the curricular intervention by introducing the three apprenticeships implicit in legal education and theorized by the Carnegie Foundation’s 2007 report, as well as the rise of experiential pedagogies in law schools more generally. In Part II, we will describe human-centered civil justice design and human-centered design thinking in technologies that address access-to-justice barriers. In Part III, we will describe the creation of the program, including the ways in which we backward designed the program from the law school’s J.D. learning outcomes, and forward designed the program to address the cognitive, emotional, and experiential bottlenecks law students experience in the first-year curriculum. In Part IV, we will discuss the results of an empirical analysis of the program that harnesses a variety of quantitative and qualitative data and uses results from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE).
Keywords: Access to Justice, Legal Education, Legal Profession, Empirical Legal Study, Service Learning
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