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Reflective Practice: A Critical Habit for Successful Lawyers

Prof. Tim Casey

Reflective practice is an idea that's been around for quite some time and is gaining ground in the broader curriculum of legal education and other fields.

California Western Prof. and Director of the STEPPS Program Tim Casey’s most recent scholarship presents an organizational model for understanding reflection in six stages, which he teaches in the STEPPS Program.

“Reflective practice refers to  developing the capacity to think critically about what it is you're doing while you're doing it,” says Prof. Casey. “For lawyers, it's thinking about the way that we do things, like interviewing, counseling, and negotiation. And being aware of different perspectives, and in particular, it applies to the making of decisions in a professional context,” adds Prof. Casey.

Recently, Prof. Casey co-presented a paper at the eighth International Legal Ethics Conference (ILEC) in Melbourne, Australia, together with Prof. Jeff Giddings (Monash University, Aus.), and Prof. Rachel Spencer (Monash University, Aus.). Prof. Casey talked about combining directed reflection with student experiences to teach ethics and values.

“I think one of the nice things about our conference presentation,” says Prof. Casey, “is that Prof. Giddings and Prof. Spencer and I and others who were at the conference share the belief that reflective practice is a critical habit for successful lawyers even though we go about teaching it in slightly different ways.”

Prof. Casey teaches reflective practice according to a six-stage model that is set out in his scholarly paper, Reflective Practice in Legal Education: The Stages of Reflection, published in 2014.

The first part of that model, says Prof Casey, requires students to understand competence and what a competent lawyer needs to do in a given situation. The second stage asks the student lawyer what choices are available to the lawyer at a given point.

“Once you recognize there are choices to make and different ways to achieve your objectives then you have to ask why certain choices were made,” he says.

That, according to Prof. Casey, involves three levels of context. First, is internal context, which is the lawyers’ own experiences, preferences, biases, and characteristics and how those affect the lawyers decision-making in terms of choosing ways to accomplish a task.

Second, is external context, which involves an awareness of others—an awareness of the witness or the judge or the members of the jury and how they might perceive a given action.

The third level is societal context. As Casey notes, lawyers must be aware of societal histories and narratives that extend beyond the confines of a particular incident or case. Finally, at the sixth stage of reflection, which is meta-reflection, the lawyer must analyze the way reflection contributed to the decision-making process. “Reflection on reflection, if you will,” says Prof. Casey.

Stressing the importance of experiential legal education, Prof. Casey says it is critical to put the student in context when making decisions. In Prof. Casey’s experience, if you can put a student in a situation where they commit to their values by apply ethical principles in a simulation, then they are more likely to act ethically in a real situation. Reflection forces the student to think about making decisions in context and allows the student to maximize the learning from the experience.

“So in essence,” concludes Prof. Casey, “what we are doing in the STEPPS Program, and later in our clinics, is at its core ethical practice, because these experiential courses give students practice or training in making ethical decisions as a professional. Reflective practice or thinking about what you're doing has particular application to teaching legal ethics.”

The California Western STEPPS Program focuses on the acquisition of basic practical skills and the development of ethical awareness. Students have the opportunity to develop these skills and values through a combination of simulation courses, role playing exercises, and mentoring. For more information on the STEPPS Program visit: https://www.cwsl.edu/academics/academic-initiatives/stepps-program