Education in the field: a case study of experiential learning in international law

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Andrew Mitchell,* Bruce Oswald CSC,** Tania Voon*** and Wendy Larcombe****

[P]assion and context are central to effective legal education. … [F]or many students experiential learning is a superior method for generating passion and providing important types of contexts …1

I  Introduction

This article considers an approach to teaching international law aimed at maximising the exposure of students to the practical operations of international agencies. Conventional, classroom-based international law courses2 do not provide students with the level of insight into the practice of international law that can be gained from direct involvement with a range of international institutions. The courses outlined and evaluated in this article were designed by the authors following considerable professional experience working with international agencies.3 The courses assist students interested in pursuing careers in international law to be better prepared for the inherent complexities, and sometimes incoherencies, of law and legal work in this field. Unlike typical, doctrine-based ‘international law’ courses, the courses reviewed here offer law students genuine insights into the working environment, complex roles, and interrelationships of the institutions, policies and legal regimes operating in the field of international law.

The course design outlined in the article has, as its centrepiece, first-hand exposure to international institutions and their professional roles and environments. This exposure creates an experiential learning opportunity that affords students unique insight into how international law works in action, and how legal professionals work with real international law problems. However, the existing models of experiential learning — such as clinical placements, internships, simulations or role-plays — were not designed to introduce students to the diverse range of institutions and problems in international law. Consequently, in 2006, the authors developed an adapted model of experiential learning by proposing a credit-bearing course that would take a relatively small group of students off-shore to study intensively in the offices of the institutions being analysed, enabling them to explore current legal problems with some of the legal professionals directly involved in addressing them. The resulting elective course, ‘Institutions in International Law’, was designed explicitly as an extension opportunity for students with a strong academic record who were interested in pursuing a career in an international law field. By introducing students to a range of institutional contexts for the practice of international law, and to a range of practitioners in a variety of roles, students were able to ‘try on’ and test their interest in various professional roles and explore future career opportunities first-hand.

First offered in 2006, Institutions in International Law was based in Geneva, Switzerland. It gave students a unique opportunity to engage directly with the work of international lawyers in a broad range of areas and establishments, taking advantage of Geneva’s position as a hub for intergovernmental organisations, including the United Nations (UN) Office at Geneva, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Trade Organization (WTO). In July 2011, this course was taught in Geneva for the fifth consecutive year. Each year, the course has consistently achieved outstanding student evaluations and participation rates.

The success of Institutions in International Law and its model of experiential learning led to the development of an additional elective course — ‘Global Lawyer’ with an explicit focus on professionalism and legal ethics in the transnational working environment of contemporary global lawyers. First offered in January 2011, the two-week off-shore component of Global Lawyer engages with practitioners and institutions based in Washington DC and New York City.

As discussed below, the intentional integration into these courses of practice-based learning and professional identity formation alongside a substantive, cognitive curriculum has produced strong learning outcomes on a range of measures. Most importantly, students are highly engaged in all aspects of the learning program and often describe the experience as ‘transformative’. As teachers, the authors are confident that students who have studied international and transnational law in this way have a superior understanding of the law, and are better prepared for legal work in an international institution or role. However, while these kinds of experiential courses provide many significant educational benefits, they also pose continuous challenges.

This article outlines some of the salient lessons learned through sustained teaching of Institutions in International Law and, more recently, Global Lawyer. It is argued that the administrative and resourcing costs are generally outweighed by the substantial educational outcomes and tangible institutional benefits that can result from this experiential learning model. Part II of this article reviews the established benefits and methods of experiential law teaching, while Part III outlines the elements of our course design and the principles and objectives around which they have been created. Part IV provides details of the specific learning outcomes for each course. In Parts V and VI, the outcomes and particular benefits to students of this teaching approach are evaluated and weighed against the not insignificant constraints and costs. In our experience, the superior learning outcomes justify persevering with the effort to provide law students with experiential learning opportunities in the field of international law (broadly conceived), despite the comparatively high financial and organisational burdens.

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