Experiential learning an essential part of Osgoode Hall Law School

Osgoode Hall Law School main foyer hallway

By Elaine Smith

By the time students graduate from Osgoode Hall Law School, they will each have had an opportunity to take part in some type of experiential education (EE). Law students can pursue a variety of hands-on learning, including working in a legal clinic, taking a praxicum course that incorporates legal theory with practice, volunteering with a public interest organization or participating in moot court sessions.

“All of these experiential education programs enhance our students’ legal education by translating theory into practice,” says Lisa Del Col, manager of experiential education and career development at Osgoode. “The skills they develop as a result help them down the road as they undertake legal careers. All EE experiences contain a component of reflection, which requires students to critically think about the activity and how it links to ethics and the larger role of lawyers in society. Osgoode Hall has one of the most robust legal EE programs in Canada.”

Craig Scott Osgoode York U
Craig Scott

Professor Craig Scott, Osgoode’s associate dean, academic, identifies three major forces driving the school’s EE commitment: a philosophy of learning; the school’s history; and, maintenance of its leadership position in legal EE.

“First of all, our learning philosophy is that students can only fully appreciate the application of theory or doctrine in context,” Scott says. “Understanding that context has limits if you only learn it in the abstract. By working in the community and with clients and practitioners, your understanding deepens.

“In addition, some 15 years ago, when we were looking at expanding experiential learning at Osgoode, Professor Obiora Okafor led a study on that topic that introduced the notion of praxis. It maintains that students can’t really understand theory outside of practice or practice without theory – they are complementary. It is the intersection of the two and a feedback loop that produces more fulsome knowledge.”

The result of the study is Osgoode Hall Law School’s requirement that all students take a praxicum course. Clinical placements satisfy this requirement, as do designated courses such as Insurance Law, a course designed to help students achieve a better understanding of the insurance law. Specifically, the role an insurance lawyer plays in advancing and defending claims arising out of a motor vehicle collision, a slip and fall accident, or a long-term disability claim. As part of the course, students participate in litigation events.

Reinforcing this focus on experiential learning is Osgoode’s motto “Justice Through Law” and the school’s historic commitment to social justice, notes Scott. “We’ve long been attentive to the deficits in society in terms of terms of law’s impacts on powerless individuals,” he says. “Many of our clinics focus on the underserved. We have a robust partnership with legal aid clinics.”

He points most specifically to the Parkdale Community Legal Services (PCLS) clinic, established in 1971 as the first community-based legal aid clinic in Ontario. It offers clinical opportunities for the largest number of Osgoode students.

PCLS embraces a model of community lawyering that integrates strategies designed to redress individual legal problems with those designed to facilitate broader systemic reform. The systemic work of the clinic takes many forms. Some of these forms include public legal education, community development, coalition building, community organizing, media strategizing and law reform. PCLS works with community members to identify issues and challenges that are facing them and to develop strategies to address these issues.

Scott, himself, is the director of a clinical program, the International and Transnational Law Intensive Program (ITLIP). The ITLIP places students with a variety of partner organizations while they simultaneously engage in parallel academic work. Each year, the program’s 15 students work with Canadian law firms and non-governmental organizations that are leaders in transnational human rights lawyering and advocacy. They can also work with international organizations such as the United Nations’ International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, addressing legal issues of an international or transnational nature. Currently, three students in the program are working on litigation regarding Iran’s 2020 downing of Ukrainian Air Flight 752 with three separate partner organizations.

Del Col agrees that clinical experience with its blend of theory and practice is valuable. “It’s an opportunity to work in-depth on one topic from both an academic and experiential standpoint,” she said. “It’s a chance to see legal work in action.”

In addition to clinical work, law students can also apply for mooting opportunities. Through these opportunities, students get a taste of litigation and related legal skills by participating in various simulations and competitions. Osgoode’s mooting and lawyering skills program offers students the opportunity to test their hands in a variety of advocacy-based activities. These activities could range from traditional appellate moot court competitions to trial advocacy, arbitration, mediation and negotiation competitions.

Osgoode students in the Juris Doctor program are also required to complete 40 hours of public interest work before graduating. They then complete a paper reflecting on the experiences or they can participate in a moderated discussion group with fellow students.

Finally, says Scott, York University is one of the leaders in Canada when it comes to legal experiential education.

“Given the sheer number of clinics we run (17), the range of topics they address and the high percentage of students who experience them. When you do something valuable and recognizable, it is important to continue being seen as a leader; we want to continue to be known for it,” notes Scott.

No matter which EE opportunities an Osgoode student participates in, the experience is valuable, Del Col says. “Just getting hands-on experience, an opportunity to put theory to practice, is very valuable.

“It’s one thing to read about a criminal, business, or Indigenous rights case, but seeing these areas of law in action helps round out a student’s education and will benefit them down the road,” she adds.