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Bringing law to life through real-world case studies

First year module introduces students to law by exploring the interaction of legal norms with climate change and homelessness, as Professor Maria Lee, UCL Laws, explains

21 March 2019

In 2018, UCL Laws introduced an ambitious, innovative, compulsory induction module for first year law students, Laws’ Connections: Legal Doctrine and Contemporary Challenges

Teaching through case studies 

The case study is the central teaching methodology for Laws’ Connections. In 2018, four case studies were available, of which each student took two: 

  • climate change
  • the gig economy
  • homelessness
  • medical accidents

In Laws’ Connections, students begin their time with us by engaging with the way that the legal system and legal norms interact with a social issue, rather than from the perspective of a legal category (such as contract, property or crime). This means that we can begin to think critically and deeply about law and ideas right from the start, even as the students are just beginning to develop their knowledge of legal doctrine. We are also able to explore some necessary introductory material on basic legal structures and legal concepts, which can seem quite abstract and dry at this stage, in a more urgent and compelling way. 

The case studies also introduce students to some important legal skills, and we require them to: 

  • read (part of) a case
  • read (part of) a statute
  • read (part of) an academic article
  • carry out a written exercise
  • do some group work
  • contribute to an oral presentation. 

Careful support is provided in small groups for each of these activities, and detailed feedback provided.

Supporting the transition to university

Each case study is made up of 5x3 hour classes, and involves no compulsory out of class preparation (save preparing for the final assessment). Time for reading and thinking is provided within the schedule, in a small group of peers, with a teacher. This reduces anxiety and allows students the space to settle into the broader social side of university life, as well as guiding expectations. 

Introducing the study of law

In addition to the case studies, each student on Laws’ Connections takes Introduction to Law. A moodle site is available for new students to access before they arrive at UCL. It includes bespoke material that I produced in four chapters: 

  • Introduction to law at UCL
  • What is law (for)?
  • Structure of the English legal system
  • Lawyers and the legal profession

Each chapter contains links to reading from various sources, including chapters from introductory English Legal System texts, as well as websites and more ‘popular’ books such as The Secret Barrister

A number of colleagues made short (under 5 minute) videos on various foundational or important legal issues – UCL made us all look rather wonderful, and this personalized and livened up potentially dry material. 

The Introduction to Law element of Laws’ Connections also includes a series of skills lectures, including topics like essay writing, problem solving, getting the most out of lectures and tutorials [see Case Study: It's a trap! How I got students to engage with assessment: the power of guided marking

Assessment

Each student is assessed (pass/fail) in one of their two case studies. The assessments this year were comprised of group presentations (two case studies), a blog and an essay. Students can take the assessment as many times as necessary to pass.  

Introduction to Law is assessed by multiple choice questions, with a pass being 20 out of 25. Students can take the test as many times as they need. 

Teaching by staff, students and alumni

I took the lead on developing, designing and running Laws’ Connections, initially in my capacity as Vice-Dean (Programme Development and Delivery), although now simply as module convenor. 

But this sort of innovation takes the commitment of many colleagues. Most obviously, the four case studies were each put together by different people (I led the climate change case study). About a dozen colleagues and students reviewed the case studies and Introduction to Law

Equally importantly, convenors of our four compulsory first year subjects ‘donated’ a lecture and a tutorial each. 
 
And nearly fifty individuals taught on Laws’ Connections. Teachers on the case studies included final year law students and some of our recent graduates, as well as all levels of faculty, from post-graduate research students to very experienced professors. The final year students and recent graduates enriched the teaching, and they confirmed in feedback that they gained a great deal from the experience. One thing we had not anticipated was that Laws’ Connections provides a different sort of ‘clinical’ legal experience for our students.

Such an ambitious and intensive programme also requires practical, moral and financial support from senior colleagues, and we had that from the Faculty of Laws Dean’s Team and the Dean. 

And of course, without the enthusiasm of our professional services colleagues for improving the student experience, and their extraordinary support, we could not have done this. 

The inspiration for Laws’ Connections

It had never been my ambition to develop such an ambitious initiative. Laws’ Connections emerged from many discussions with a large number of colleagues and students about our experiences and our hopes. 

We reflected on the enormous privilege of engaging with all of these young people, on their first steps in the transformative experience of higher education, within our walls and within our discipline. What did we really want their first experience to be? 

Student and staff responses

We asked for anonymous feedback about Laws Connections from students and staff:

Student feedback

Laws Connections introduced me to the integration of the law into society and the importance of it in the issues that we face today. 
It gave me a better understanding of how law works in the UK, in terms of how legislation is passed and how power is distributed. It also introduced the ethical issues that lawyers could potentially face.
The best thing about Laws’ Connections was being able to speak to different academics, students or experts about each topic, since every single person has a different aspect to introduce to your analysis.


Staff feedback

The opportunity to introduce students to the connection between law and social issues, and to law in action, so early in their degree studies was fantastic. The teaching teams worked incredibly well - there was a team camaraderie and enthusiasm that made the teaching experience especially rewarding and also engaged students in the subject matter.
The programme is very exciting...I'm not sure the students will have realised just how much they have learned about how to be a law student.


Laws' Connections: future development and broader impact

These things don’t and shouldn’t last forever. But Laws’ Connections does feel sustainable, and should be able to flourish and evolve for a number of years. A few colleagues are working on additional case studies for 2019 and 2020, and many colleagues are keen to stay involved, or to get involved for the first time next year. We want to work harder on integrating Laws’ Connections into the rest of our programme. 

We’re all applying the experience of teaching Laws’ Connections to other areas of our teaching and professional lives. Through some of our conversations around Laws’ Connections, we’ve empowered ourselves to teach across the curriculum in the way we think best. 

Top tips for introducing new modules to your courses

  1. Take the time to build a level of consensus and enthusiasm among colleagues – this sort of ambitious programme does not work without buy in. 
  2. Give it the time and resources it needs. We started our reflective workshops in January 2017, and spent much of the rest of the year working around the issues with colleagues. The faculty agreed to go ahead at the Education Away Day in November 2017, and we ran Laws’ Connections for the first time in September 2018.
  3. This sort of thing succeeds only if a core group is committed to making this work – don’t underestimate the challenge. 
  4. But don’t underestimate how rewarding this can be! For those developing the initiative, for colleagues, and most importantly for students.