Lay people as assessors? Standard client interviews for developing communication skills in legal education – Wilson Chow, Julienne Jen, and Michael Ng
Each discipline speaks its specialized and technical language which outsiders may not easily comprehend. After graduating from the Postgraduate Certificate in Laws (PCLL) programme more than two decades ago, one of the soft skills that we had to learn on the job as we went along, more often than not in the dark without much guidance, was the ability to communicate effectively with our clients in daily legal practice. We all know well the consequence of a client not coming back but clients just decide not to come back to us without giving a reason!
As a learning and assessment tool, the ‘standardized client’ (SC) interview at HKU PCLL aims to bridge learning within university to legal practice in real life. It involves lay persons to portray clients to facilitate students’ learning of communication skills and help in the assessment of their communicative competence.
‘Are assessment and feedback by SCs objective, valid and reliable?’ This was the paramount concerns that both teachers and students shared at the beginning. It has been shown, and re-affirmed by the HKU experience, that it can be done via training and standardization in clienting according to a scripted realistic scenario and in assessment with reference to a set of tested rubrics.
“Is it just ‘monkey see, monkey do’?” We provide students with opportunities to have more than one SC interview and encourage them to reflect on their own performance by giving them access to the recordings of their interviews. Indeed, students and graduates have evaluated highly the SC interviews, some of them even demonstrating a reflective approach in their learning:
“The SC interview helped me to consciously think about what a lay person understands and what he may understand and how to explain legal concepts.”
“… It is important to grasp the skills of interviewing clients because whether the clients have trust and confidence in you very much depends on how you respond to their questions, how you approach the case, how you ask the right questions, and how you perform in the interviews.”
“The interviewing exercise … adds variety to the assessment method which is good. The person who acted as a client was also very professional and well prepared and the feedbacks given by her were helpful and comprehensive. Now that I have started training for 3 months, I think it did help in a sense that I am more at ease when dealing with clients.”
“… The exercise trained my ability to listen effectively. Listening is, I would say, the most important skill of the trainee because on the daily basis you are either taking instructions or you are listening to people explain legal issues or discuss about legal issues.”
For further information about the assessment approach in this article, please refer to Chow, W. & Ng, M. (2015). Legal Education without the law: Lay clients as teachers and assessors in communication skills, International Journal of the Legal Profession, 22(1), 103-125 (DOI: 10.1080/09695958.2015.1075888).