Collaborative Learning in Legal Skills

Group work, cooperative classrooms and collaborative learning. These phrases describe learning environments where students carry out some or all of their coursework in groups with their peers. While there is a difference in the focus of cooperative learning and collaborative group approaches to coursework, this post will not outline those differences, but merely advise readers to consult literature for the pedagogical definitions.

group work
Collaborative Learning Environments

Collaborative and cooperative learning have been increasingly present in lawyering classrooms over the past decade, according to legal writing scholarship. Although collaborative and cooperative learning began in primary school classrooms, they are now an integral part of law school curriculum.

Developing skills and competences in learners is enhanced with the immediate feedback made possible in collaborative learning environments. As a result, collaborative learning is an ideal way to deliver instruction in lawyering and legal skills environments.

Benefits of Collaborative Learning

The collaborative environment has benefits for learners and for educators. The benefits for learners are:

  • Enhanced student accountability (self-regulated learning);
  • Sharing of best practices and paradigms among learners; and
  • Development of professional language and demeanor.
Student accountability

As students work in collaborative groups, they perform specific tasks. These tasks may include writing, researching or delivering oral presentations. The learners complete the task with minimal supervision from the course instructor. Additionally, they set their own agenda and allot time to ensure the task is completed by the deadline. Learners also clarify parts of the task that are not clear to them by speaking with the instructors. They assign their own roles and define their internal process for completing, reviewing and editing work. In short, students become self-regulated learners.

Scholarship demonstrates that the increase in student accountability for their own work is beneficial. Self-regulated learners develop thinking processes that facilitate movement of new learning into long-term memory. In addition, scholars point out that students gain all-important time management skills in the process.

Best practices

During class time, groups are performing tasks, but each group is responsible for charting their own process for completing their tasks. Firstly, this allows for different approaches to the process. It also permits a comparison of processes to see if there are some best practices or paradigms for carrying out those tasks. Finally, during any debriefing, learners can discuss and compare their processes and decide if the methods employed by another group may be adopted for future work.

Language enhancement/professional demeanor

All collaborative efforts have an influence on how learners discuss and act. Learners will use language they hear from other group members. They will (consciously or not) also imitate the behavior and demeanor of others, including the instructors. For this reason, cooperative learning groups are great places to permit learners to imitate the practice and profession by designing tasks that simulate the actual practice of law.  Law practitioners use mooting to develop their case for litigation. Similarly courses that include exercises help students develop the vocabulary and professional demeanor needed for practice are a type of mooting.

Three Elements of Collaborative Learning Environments

Collaborative learning classrooms have defined roles for each group member. The roles ensure that learners have an opportunity to experience all aspects of collaborative work. The work is subject to peer evaluation and frequent feedback on the process through self and group reflection moments. The instructor defines the tasks and criteria for evaluation while also ensuring that students can clarify information and find additional resources when necessary.

cooperative learning
Three dynamics of collaborative learning

Collaborative roles

The first feature of collaborative learning is the presence of defined roles for the learners. The roles for collaborative learning classrooms can vary depending on the tasks and the type of course. For law, those roles can include a speaker, facilitator, recorder and observer/task monitor. These are the minimum types of roles for a collaborative environment to achieve its learning goals.

Primary roles

The speaker voices the group outcomes and decisions in classroom debriefing sessions. The facilitator runs the group meetings ensuring that all agenda items are discussed and that each group member is invited to contribute to the decisions of the group. The recorder writes down the outcomes of the decision and keeps notes regarding the main topics discussed. The observer/task monitor evaluates the group process and gives feedback regarding how well the members performed their roles. The observer/task monitor can also request clarification from the instructors where tasks are not clear for each group member.

Additional roles

In courses with larger numbers, learners can also play roles of reader, agenda setter/time keeper.  The reader reads aloud any relevant tasks to the group. The agenda setter/time keeper starts off the sessions by delineating the tasks and asking group members to decide how much time to allot to each task.

Not collaborative learning
Lecture hall, traditional learning

Roles are important for ensuring that each learner is responsible for a part of the process. These roles can be rotated to give each learner a chance to perform the role. (NOTE: The group formation can change each time the class meets. It is not necessary to keep the same members in each group.)

Student-centered learning environment

The main factor distinguishing collaborative learning environments from traditional classrooms is where the instruction originates. In collaborative learning, the instruction is not delivered by the professor. Instead, in carrying out the tasks, students learn the information, skill or competence found in the learning objectives for the course. Students are self-regulated learners who take responsibility for their progress in the course and for the quality and timely submission of their tasks. The role of the instructor is similar to a facilitator. The instructor sets the learning outcomes and creates the tasks. The instructor also assesses the work product from the collaborative groups.

The main difference between collaborative environments and traditional classrooms, is that cooperative learning roles help learners actively engage with their peers to decide on a process for completing the task and they must also give each other roles and sub tasks. They must monitor their progress and make adjustments if the process is not working well.

cooperative learning group
Collaborative learning

Reflection on the process

Group dynamics are a necessary element of the reflection process. That process of dividing work and assigning responsibilities is the key to successful execution of tasks. Therefore, during collaborative learning, moments for reflection on the process and the performance of group members provide opportunities for improvement and better work products in the future. During these moments, a formal rubric aids to focus discussion on learning outcomes and whether they were met. Members share ways to improve the process. Honesty and respect are key traits for delivering feedback after reflection. Reflection moments with the larger class yields benefit for all groups.

cooperative learning matrix
Collaborative learning rubric (click to open in Google Drive)


In conclusion, cooperative and collaborative learning is beneficial for legal skills learners. Firstly, the process of collaborative learning grants students both independence and interdependence. Additionally, as students learn to monitor their own learning process, they can take responsibility for the process and substance of their learning. Moreover, they can benefit from the insight of peers for improving their work and the group collaboration process.  Finally, tools such as rubrics and clear learning outcomes, as well as task sheets and instruction handouts can lend guidance and clarity to the expectations for coursework.

Law students who are proficient in collaborative working protocol will be an asset to any business, law firm, or organization. The proliferation of cloud-based collaborative efforts demonstrate that legal practitioners will need to give proof of solid cooperative working skills to be competitive in today’s workplace.

Additional Resources

(1) Handout regarding cooperative learning roles

(2) Video presentation about collaborative learning

Cooperative learning roles
Cooperative learning roles (click to view in Google Drive)
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Legal Skills Lecturer in The Netherlands. (J.D. Columbia University; PhD Maastricht University International Human Rights Law.)

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