Learning Law in Place is one of a series of CBA projectsFootnote1 emerging from the 2013 report, Reaching Equal Justice. Reaching Equal Justice challenges all those working in, or preparing to work in the justice system to think deeply about what they can do, as individuals and in collaboration with others, to move toward equal justice now.

The report started from community consultations with marginalized people and on the street interviews. Key findings from the community consultations were damning: legal rights are just on paper, justice systems cannot be trusted, justice is person dependent and justice systems are difficult to navigate. Random interviews with people on the street were more positive but demonstrated less familiarity with the justice system, or what to do if confronted with a legal problem.

Legal problems are everywhere, but impact different populations differently. Research has shown that over 3 years, 45% of Canadians will experience a “justiciable event”.Footnote2 Legal problems tend to cluster, multiply, and have an additive effect, and this pattern of cascading problems disproportionately impacts people living in marginalized conditions.Footnote3

The report suggested 31 Targets to be achieved by 2030, with Actions to begin immediately and interim Milestones to mark progress, each advancing a particular goal that will move toward equal justice. One Target is aimed directly at increasing awareness of access to justice among law students (at pg. 121):

  • By 2030, three Canadian law schools will establish centres of excellence for access to justice research.
  • By 2030, substantial experiential learning experience is a requirement for all law students.
  • By 2020, all graduating law students:
    • Have a basic understanding of the issues relating to access to justice in Canada.
    • Know that fostering access to justice is an integral part of their professional responsibility.
    • Have taken at least one course or volunteer activity that involves experiential learning providing access to justice.
  • By 2020, all law schools in Canada have at least one student legal clinic that provides representation to low income persons.

Reaching Equal Justice says that access to justice is the biggest legal issue of our generation.Footnote4 Learning Law in Place (the Guide) is written to enhance learning from experience in an access to justice context, with the goal of ensuring that increasing numbers of law school graduates and young lawyers are committed to advancing equal justice. It is intended to be one tool directed toward the larger pedagogical mission of supporting access to justice through legal education. At the same time, it is designed to both gradually change the legal profession’s understanding of access to justice as a right, and also an integral part of lawyers’ professional responsibilities.

Learning Law in Place intends to help law students get the most out of any and each experiential learning opportunity they may have. Instructors or supervisors can encourage the use of this Guide in various ways. For example, they might ask students to use it in whole or in part, depending on the nature of the experiential learning opportunity. Some instructors and supervisors have found it helpful to create opportunities for law students to discuss the Guide together periodically, to learn more about how their colleagues are taking advantage of the Guide.


When the Guide refers to “you”, it speaks directly to law students. Some of the terms used in the Guide may be unfamiliar. They refer to a theory of learning from the field of education that recognizes the benefits of following specific reflective strategies to learn from experience.

Educational experts have been studying experiential learning for some time and know the steps that lead to professional success. This Guide builds on those educational theories, adapting them for law students. Additional references and resources can be found at the end of the Guide.

Frequently used terms

Experiential learning

“Experiential learning” emphasizes the importance of reflecting on individual experiences, observing outcomes and drawing conclusions, to allow an individual to try the experience again (experimenting), and effectively learn from both successes and mistakes.

Work-integrated learning (WIL)

“Work-integrated learning (WIL)” is any placement that integrates learning in the workplace (practical learning) with theory. The key is that the individual learns from experience, guided by theoretical and practical concepts.Footnote5

Learning through reflection on doing

“Learning through reflection on doing” taking a moment to reflect on what a person is experiencing, thinking and doing before, during, and after an encounter or a task helps to develop professional insight and build skills more quickly.

Reflective practice

“Reflective practice” is a professional learning theory that is critical to building competence and developing professional expertise and identity. At its simplest, it is about developing the ability to analyze experience, thoughts and actions to ensure continuous learning. As a discliplined and systematic strategy for learning, reflective practice develops professional expertise. This requires integrating theory (technical knowledge) and practice. Becoming critically reflective is also important to the practice of law, as well as nurturing self-reflection to ensure professional integrity, ethics and emotional and mental wellness.Footnote6

Cultural competency

“Cultural competency” in the legal context requires legal professionals to reflect on their own identity and biases, and how these impact their work with clients and others. Improving cultural competency helps a legal practitioner to appreciate and recognize the client’s needs and goals, and the systemic issues raised by the client’s social markers. It can help to identify important issues that may not be initially apparent or explicitly raised by the client, and establish trust and a good rapport.Footnote7

About the guide

Learning Law in Place (the Guide) will develop your reflective practice skills, engage you in discussions of access to justice issues and help you navigate the complex practical, ethical and emotional challenges that come with the world of lawyering. The Guide cannot be all things to all people and is but one tool to enhance your experiential learning.

The intended learning outcomes of this Guide are:

  • Develop your reflective practice skills and deepen your ability to learn from experience
  • Build your critical consciousness about barriers and solutions to access to justice challenges, and assist to make connections between research on access to justice and how to improve legal practice
  • Support you to form your own professional identity through new approaches to lawyering
  • Support you to develop personal wellness practices, and
  • Develop skills to use wherever your legal training takes you in the future.

This Guide is intended to help maximize your WIL experience. Evidence suggests that when students and professionals are intentional about their learning, it results in deeper and longer lasting learning and better personal and career outcomes.Footnote8 For many law students, the first taste of “real life” lawyering may occur in law school through a WIL experience. That might include everything from pro bono hours at a non-profit organization to “summering” at a law firm. Your WIL might be an externship, internship or co-op learning program, classes with a placement option or even a problem-based learning course. WILs offer an excellent way to discover more about the practice of law and help figure out what you want (or don’t want) to do as a legal professional.

These experiences can help you understand more about the people and institutions related to law and the justice system, and can increase consciousness about access to justice, while potentially also increasing service and fostering new approaches to helping people seeking justice.

You can use this Guide for different WIL experiences. Whether you pick it up at the beginning, middle or end of a WIL experience, there are useful exercises and tools to help you better understand and benefit from law-related work. It provides resources to support you in sustaining a lifelong commitment to a career in law and to improving access to justice.


The Learning Law in Place Guide is a project of the Canadian Bar Association Access to Justice Subcommittee’s Legal Education Working Group. It was written by Gemma Smyth, with the assistance of other Working Group members Douglas Ferguson, LA Henry, Michele Leering and Brea Lowenberger. An Advisory Committee – Patricia Barkaskas, Sarah Buhler, Rebecca Johnson, Michael Marin, Lise Rivet, Annie Rochette and David Wiseman – gave important feedback. Special thanks are also due to other legal educators and law students who tested the Guide and offered their insights, as well as workshop participants at the Canadian Association of Law Teachers and Association of Clinical Legal Educators’ Conferences in 2017 and 2018.