A critique of the assessment of professional skills

II What are Professional Skills, and Why Teach Them?

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II What are Professional Skills, and
Why Teach Them?

Many professional skills are of general cross-disciplinary relevance. For instance, in almost every area the skills of effective communication, complex decision-making, problem solving, and ethical behaviour are important. However, a discussion of the pedagogy of skills education can stretch beyond these ‘fundamental’ or ‘generic’ skills, by virtue of the fact that there are inherent similarities in the teaching and assessment process for many skills, including many of the more ‘profession-specific’ skills. Therefore, while this paper will focus on skills teaching and assessment of both general and profession specific skills in the context of law, it is hoped that the principles discussed will be applicable in many other disciplines.

In the context of law, professional skills can range from narrow technical skills like drafting a list of discoverable documents or a notice to admit, to broader skills associated with dealing with clients, the skills needed for the application of substantive knowledge to a particular factual context, and the knowledge and understanding of the ethical principles that form the framework for the practice of the professional skills. There is ongoing pedagogical and professional debate about how these skills may best be learned in the context of an academic program: whether as a discrete formal subject or in a pervasive method, embedded within the substantive material in each course. This is particularly an issue for the teaching of law, as law is now taught almost exclusively in a non clinical (that is, academic) environment, so students rarely have an opportunity to learn about professionalism and ethical issues in a real professional context.

Skills teaching takes place in almost all law schools in Australia, America and the United Kingdom.5 Some of this teaching of skills could be considered a by-product of the teaching of substantive law. However, there has been a repeated emphasis on the role of law schools in developing in students the skills they need to be ethical and competent practitioners. For example, the Australian Law Reform Commission commented in 2000 that the law school plays a key role in the development of a professional culture among lawyers. It recommended that:

[i]n addition to the study of core areas of substantive law, university legal education in Australia should involve the development of high level professional skills and a deep appreciation of ethical standards and professional responsibility.6

Many law schools have responded to comments such as this by incorporating more specific teaching of skills in their law degrees. Since the late 1990s the University of Adelaide Law School has followed this trend. This has been done by incorporating a number of skills-based courses into the academic program. These skills courses (both compulsory and elective) are structured around problems representative of professional practice and require active student participation to learn from the problems. By allowing students to develop their knowledge in a context which is similar to those they may encounter in their future professional lives it is hoped that students will remember and recall more effectively the knowledge they acquire.7 It is also hoped that these courses will help overcome the academic-vocational divide that can appear in traditional professional courses, and make the study of law meaningful by taking it beyond abstract rules.8 The development of skills will also assist graduates to move effectively into professional employment.9

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