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Virtual legal education: How students can maximize online learning | Daniel W. Dylan

Wednesday, September 02, 2020 @ 12:14 PM | By Daniel Dylan


Daniel Dylan %>
Daniel Dylan
In part one of this series, I posited that by recognizing that we all have experience engaging in video communication, legal educators and students would afford themselves a more relaxed and conducive mindset by which to approach online/virtual legal education.

In part two, I discuss the legal profession’s trend toward virtual lawyering and how law students can maximize virtual learning in the “new” pedagogy of legal education and legal practice.

Given that certain provincial courts, lawyers and legal professionals will be — for the foreseeable future — operating in virtual settings, the importance and practical value of learning how to engage with legal concepts, arguments, judges, lawyers, court personnel and other professionals virtually, while still in law school, prepares students for the changing realties of legal practice and will make them better lawyers, able to better serve their clients, the profession and the rule of law.

Whether it is meeting with clients, conducting judicial pretrials, examinations for discovery or litigation, attending bail reviews or sentencing hearings, developing legal skills that can be deployed or exercised in both face-to-face and virtual settings is crucial for the modern, post-COVID-19 lawyer.

Thus, while it may (in an elegiac sense) be preferable to study law in a face-to-face setting, and even though such a paradigm is likely to return once a better handle has been secured over COVID-19, the opportunity for all students to learn how to be a lawyer in virtual settings is undoubtedly an important and necessary skill to develop.

By recognizing online/virtual education as part of a new legal pedagogy, students are afforded a better understanding not just of what they are learning, but how they are learning. Moreover, they are developing important practice skills in addition to substantive knowledge of the law.

Additionally, legal education will be no less effective or pedagogically successful just because it is delivered and received virtually and not in a face-to-face classroom. Education has always provided a “what you put in, is what you get out” kind of relationship. Most faculty members are deeply invested in ensuring that their online/virtual classrooms will remain instructive learning environments, will have adjusted their philosophy of teaching perspectives accordingly and will remain attentive to different learning styles, needs and accommodations.

Plenty of faculty members will ensure that there are opportunities to safely meet in person and face-to-face to supplement the online/virtual education classroom. Now more than ever, law students — especially first-year law students — must remain serious, committed and vigilant in respect of the challenges that lie ahead of them.

Stated another way, law school is always a formidable challenge and one must rise to it if one wishes to be successful. It will do no good to suggest that online/virtual legal education is “just not the same,” when COVID-19 has ensured that nothing else is or will ever be the same.

The world, like the common law and legal practice, is always in a constant state of flux. Ultimately, however, adjusting to the new realities brought on by COVID-19 will mean having open and honest dialogues among educators and students in each course to determine what works and what does not and making the necessary adjustments along the way.

Students should not be afraid to offer suggestions to their professors, whether solicited or unsolicited. To stay current and innovative, faculty members and law students alike should embrace these changes in legal education and ones occurring in the profession, even though they were mostly brought about under the frightening cloud of a global pandemic.

That said, as members of the legal profession, educators and students, we have the opportunity to set the new standards for legal education and practice — an always exciting and rewarding endeavour — by embracing synchronous online/virtual education. Doing so makes us authors, not just participants, in our professional lives and futures and demonstrates that where there is a will, there is always a way.

This is part two. Part one: Importance of not undervaluing virtual legal education.

Daniel Dylan is an associate professor at the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law, Lakehead University, in Thunder Bay, Ont. He teaches animal law, contract law, evidence law, intellectual property law and Indigenous knowledge governance.

Illustration by Chris Yates/Law360

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