Professor Tianna N. Gibbs, co-director of the General Practice Clinic at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, has introduced an innovative pedagogical approach that significantly impacts the family law classroom. Her article, titled “Experiential Learning in Family Law: Promoting Inclusion, Equity, and Professional Identity,” offers a fresh perspective on how experiential learning can create an inclusive educational environment, foster equity, and prepare law students for the challenges of legal practice.
Professor Gibbs outlines a series of short, in-class exercises designed to teach third party custody doctrine while simultaneously honing multiple foundational lawyering skills. These exercises cover vital aspects such as statutory interpretation, client interviewing, client-centered lawyering, and oral advocacy—all in a single class session. More importantly, they go beyond skill development.
The thoughtfully designed exercises promote inclusion and equity. Professor Gibbs emphasizes the exercises’ capacity to create an inclusive classroom atmosphere, focusing on a nontraditional family context and providing opportunities for students to engage in discussions of family hardship. Additionally, these exercises expose students to a wide range of lawyering tasks related to family law practice, giving them an authentic preview of the journey from the initial client interview to trial.
Moreover, the exercises encourage students to develop their professional identity by placing them in the shoes of an attorney representing an assigned client. This empowers students to consider the lawyer they aspire to become and reflect on the role of both attorney and client within the attorney-client relationship. This multifaceted approach not only equips students with knowledge and skills but also nurtures their understanding of the ethical and personal dimensions of legal practice.
Professor Gibbs originally used these exercises in a clinic seminar early in the semester, serving as a bridge between client interviewing and client counseling simulations. The primary objective is to enable students to comprehend the doctrine sufficiently to counsel a non-parent caregiver about whether to file a third-party custody complaint.
These highly interactive, short exercises empower students to apply, analyze, and evaluate legal doctrine, preparing them for real-world legal scenarios.
The significance of this pedagogical approach lies in its adaptability. While initially designed for a clinic seminar, these exercises can seamlessly integrate into various courses, including those with a doctrinal, experiential, or clinical focus on family law. The exercises can be utilized effectively without requiring an entire course redesign, making them accessible to educators regardless of class session duration.
Professor Gibbs’ article presents a valuable resource for educators seeking to enhance family law education, emphasizing not only the acquisition of legal knowledge and skills but also the cultivation of a strong professional identity, all while fostering inclusivity and equity in the classroom. This innovative approach contributes to the evolution of legal education, preparing students for the complex challenges they will encounter in their legal careers.