Are idealism and realism mutually exclusive concepts in clinical legal education?

Joanne Clough, Adam Jackson

Research output: Other contributionpeer-review


"In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Eric HofferThe hypothesis upon which this paper is based is that a high quality clinical programme should provide students with a realistic experience which develops practical skills and prepares them for practice. It should also achieve the underlying educational aims of the clinical programme including the development of academic skills and the passing of an assessment. It therefore appears that clinical education has to achieve two very distinct aims On the one hand a good clinical programme will seek to achieve both academic and educational goals by putting law into practice for the students. It will provide students with the opportunity to learn and develop new legal skills such as drafting and interviewing. Clinic will encourage students to become reflective practitioners and will provide valuable experience for students to take into their legal careers. On the other hand, clinic is set within a working office and provides a key means of access to justice within the local community. The regulating body (such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority) demands that clients are serviced to exactly the same high standard as any other law firm and the supervisors are responsible for the advice and representation provided. This clearly requires a level of realism in that advice and representation has real life consequences. With this in mind, can a clinical programme successfully achieve both its educational and practical aims or are the two principles mutually exclusive?The speakers come from very different backgrounds and will take a different viewpoint as to which, if any, of these competing interests should prevail. On the one hand, the educator will say that the instructive value of clinic, with its practical approach to learning the law, far outweighs the necessity for the practical context to be wholly realistic. This view argues that clinic is a safe environment in which students can experience the law for the first time thus it is important that clients can be hand-picked depending on how much educational benefit can be gained from the case. Students should be encouraged to reflect on their practice and will be able to adapt to realities if they are reflective lawyers. The solicitor supervisor will suggest the opposite. In reality, a legal environment is more than just representing the clients; it is a business environment. This requires practitioners not only to know the law, but how to deal with a case to maximise fee earning potential while still providing a high quality service. Every client is a fee and there can be no selection process. Having learned the law, clinic should be an opportunity to highlight the realities of law in practice before students take the final leap into a tough career.This paper will seek to address the question ‘are idealism and realism mutually exclusive concepts in clinical legal education’ with reference to relevant literature in the field of legal pedagogy. Both speakers will advance arguments about whether clinical programmes provide students with the academic and practical tools necessary to adapt to a legal career or whether in fact they prepare them for a legal world that does not exist.
Original languageEnglish
TypeConference Paper
Publication statusAccepted/In press - Jul 2010


  • clinical legal education


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