William Henderson at Elon Law shares new research on value of experiential learning for students

At the Second National Symposium on Experiential Education in Law, held June 13-15 at Elon Law, William Henderson, one of the most influential people in American legal education, presented research linking enhanced student outcomes to a coordinated, sequenced and experience-based model of legal education. 

Luke Bierman, dean and professor of law at Elon University School of Law, introduced Henderson who is Professor of Law, Van Nolan Faculty Fellow and Director of the Center on the Global Legal Profession at the Maurer School of Law, Indiana University at Bloomington.  

“There is no one more knowledgeable about legal profession and legal education than Bill and the work that he does,” Bierman said. “Bill is fully engaged in a variety of ways in trying to make change in the profession and legal education, and doing it from a very strong, data-driven perspective.”

Henderson’s presentation centered on initial findings from his research in association with the Outcomes Assessment Project at Northeastern University School of Law.

“I’m really excited about being able to share some of this for the first time with a broader audience,” Henderson said. “There’s the possibility that this educational design can make a huge difference.”

In advancing research about Northeastern Law’s experiential approach to legal education, Henderson collaborated with consultant Rebecca Sandefur and Bierman, who prior to his role at Elon served as associate dean for experiential education and distinguished professor of the practice of law at Northeastern University School of Law. The research, Henderson said, focused on two primary research questions: Does the Northeastern model accelerate professional development? Could that model enhance career satisfaction?

Drawing from both Outcomes Assessment Project (OAP) and Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) research, Hubbard pointed to data that supports affirmative conclusions to the preceding research questions. In particular, OAP research found that 92 percent of Northeastern Law students who completed four co-ops indicated that a co-op experience altered their career plans, including influencing their choice of law school courses. Based on quantitative and qualitative findings, Henderson said he believed it was possible that educational design, including programs that cultivate self-aware career planning among students, could increase levels of career satisfaction.

“We think that exposure to several different practice settings in a true work fashion, because these are 11-week, full-time placements, would make a big difference,” Henderson said.

Henderson highlighted additional themes from student responses in OAP questionnaires and focus groups, including accelerated development of practical lawyering skills and deepened professional identity through co-op experiences. Henderson said the findings mesh with social science research indicating three common attributes of high performance: cognitive ability, drive and character, and depth of experience. He said traditional law school models focus almost exclusively on cognitive ability, to the exclusion of more reliable criteria for predicting outcomes within the nation’s law student population.

“To overweigh something that can predict so little and to ignore other things that can predict a lot is really crazy,” Henderson said. “So character and drive, and educational experience and playing time should be where we focus a lot of our efforts.”

Henderson suggested that legal educators could improve upon the traditional law school model and that research examining outcomes from Northeastern Law’s co-op model provides promising indicators about the effectiveness of experiential learning in the law.

“I want to put in front of you the idea that possibly this idea of a coordinated, sequenced model of legal education would be better than the autonomous model, the autonomous professor,” Henderson said. “If we could cooperate toward this end of educating people toward something that was really, really special, maybe we could move the needle, maybe we could do a better job educating. We’re in a professional educational domain. It’s kind of high stakes what our students do. If we can increase the quality of learning, we’re delivering a good to society.”

Read an in-depth 2013 research bulletin of Northeastern University School of Law, titled, “Does Cooperative Placement Accelerate Law Student Professional Development?,” authored by Luke Bierman, principal investigator, William Henderson, principal researcher, and Rebecca Sandefur, consultant.

Learn more about legal education leader, law scholar and teacher William Henderson here.

A report about the Second National Symposium on Experiential Education in Law, held at Elon University School of Law, June 13-15, is available here. Elon Law hosted the symposium with the Alliance for Experiential Learning in Law, an organization comprised of legal educators, judges and lawyers affiliated with 109 law schools and legal service organizations.