Experiential and Active Learning for Future Corporate Lawyers

On May 7th, 2015, I had the pleasure of participating in the Estey Symposium on Experiential and Active Learning in Business Law, organized by Professor Rod Wood, my colleague at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law, and this past year, the visiting Estey Chair in Business Law at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law.

When we think of experiential learning, we tend to think of courses that offer students either actual or simulated experiences in litigation. For example, Prof. Wood, with experienced practitioner Rick Reeson, offers a course on restructuring in which students argue a multi-party chambers application (in front of a real judge!). For those of us teaching in the corporate and commercial law areas, it was interesting to spend a day talking about various ways to give students these kind of experiences in solicitor or transactional work.

Therese Maynard, the William G. Coskran Professor of Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, has designed a course that gives students a simulated experience in closing a venture capital deal. Assignments represent the kind of work a senior practitioner might give a first-year lawyer, something my own students consistently ask for. The course also gives students a chance to see if they’d like solicitor work, in the same way that mooting gives students a chance to see whether they might enjoy litigation. Given the marking load, the sections are small, but Loyola is able to offer a number of sections thanks to Prof. Maynard’s fundraising efforts, which enabled the school to hire a full-time coordinator and sessional instructors for each section.

In his International Business Transactions course, University of Saskatchewan’s Professor Ron Cuming divides his fifteen students into groups of three, representing a buyer, a seller, and a financier. Each group is given a scenario and, as they work through the substantive course material, they are expected to bargain and to draft an agreement to close the transaction described in the scenario. Students are also required to write a report to the client, explaining the approach ultimately taken in the bargained agreement.

My own course at the University of Alberta (creatively titled Advanced Topics in Corporate Law) takes a different approach to exposing students to corporate governance issues faced by large publicly-listed companies. Students are divided into five “client groups” or stakeholders, in which they debate various topics, such as gender diversity on boards, say-on-pay and the role of proxy advisory firms. I wanted to One goal of the course was to look at corporate law through the lens of public policy, and thereby give students some experience dealing with questions of public policy and regulation. Although the course requires students to examine issues from an assigned client’s point of view, next year, when I offer the course for the second time, I would like to include at least one exercise that, like Prof. Maynard’s and Prof. Cuming’s classes, would require students to provide advice on a specific legal question and to produce some sort of document or “deliverable”, perhaps a comment letter to the securities regulator on a proposed rule.

We often think of experiential learning as taking place outside the classroom, and the symposium included discussion of these types of opportunities as well. Michael Litchfield spoke about the Business Law Clinic at University of Victoria, of which he is the Director, which provides legal information, rather than legal advice, to for-profit businesses and non-profits throughout British Columbia. Like Prof. Maynard’s course at Loyola, the clinic is externally funded, in this case, by four law firms. Professor Heather Heavin of the University of Saskatchewan discussed her school’s new in-house counsel externship, which provides part-time placements for three students in the legal departments of Saskatoon-based companies which do not otherwise hire summer or articling students. Both the clinic and the externship provide students with opportunities to develop their research and writing skills in a professional setting.

The challenge in all of these courses, and the others discussed at the Symposium, is the resources, capital and human, required to offer them. We probably could have spent a whole second day just on this aspect of experiential and active learning. That will have to wait for another symposium – and another blog post.

Gail E. Henderson is an Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law. Follow her on Twitter @hendersongaile.

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