Simulated clients challenge conventional legal education practices


TORONTO, Wednesday, February 6, 2019 -- In what is one of the latest innovations in legal education, York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School is training people from a variety of backgrounds to be simulated clients and help law students develop their client-facing skills.

“Outside of law school clinics, it’s as close to the reality of working with clients as most of our students will get,” said Paul Maharg, a leading scholar in legal education who joined Osgoode in 2017 as Distinguished Professor of Practice.

“Like student doctors meeting real patients in surgeries and hospitals, student lawyers learn to shift their thinking from the technical details of appellate cases and legislation they learn in most courses in law school to a holistic appreciation of a client’s situation, wishes, expectations and the possible extra-legal solutions that might be available to the client.”

Maharg and Professor Shelley Kierstead are using 11 simulated clients in a pilot program this winter involving Juris Doctor (JD) students in Kierstead’s first-year Legal Process course.

“We’re using the simulated clients with students to help develop students’ interviewing skills, their awareness of clients, the role of affect, perspective and perception of law in clients, and much else,” Kierstead said.

The simulated clients participate in an intense four-day training course before meeting the students. The simulated clients must be able to memorize a scenario and represent it conversationally; improvise on the scenario where appropriate; assess students’ client-facing skills; and self-monitor their own performances as simulated clients.

Meanwhile, Maharg and Kierstead prepare the students to meet the simulated clients with a brief presentation on the simulated client initiative and a tutorial on interviewing skills. This is followed by a student’s mandatory meeting with a simulated client and a second, voluntary meeting with a simulated client.

Until now, students or actors have been mostly used to play the roles of clients. There have been problems with that approach including concerns about the authenticity and fairness of the client experience.

“The simulated clients are, paradoxically, more authentic because they are trained to enact being themselves with each student,” he said. “We also train them to react conversationally with the lawyer, not to give the full problem as a highly detailed, linear, logical narrative but to present as if the client were relating to the lawyer for the first time, with narrative gaps, redundancies and other markers of conversational register.”

When actors are used with students, they are almost never used to assess students, Maharg said. “In our initiative, we use the simulated clients to assess students’ client-facing behaviours and attitudes. We make client experience the focus of the assessment and ensure the validity and robustness of the assessment.”

Since 2005 about a dozen simulated client projects have been established internationally among a loose consortium of law schools, legal educators and legal education regulators, Maharg said.

“In addition to the benefits to this approach, it also challenges many aspects of conventional legal educational practices and cultures,” Maharg said. “In future years, we hope to expand the use of simulated clients in the Law School.”


About Osgoode Hall Law School
Osgoode Hall Law School of York University has a proud history of 130 years of leadership and innovation in legal education and legal scholarship. A total of about 900 students are enrolled in Osgoode’s three-year Juris Doctor (JD) Program as well as joint and combined programs. The school's Graduate Program in Law is also the largest in the country and one of the most highly regarded in North America. In addition, Osgoode Professional Development, which operates out of Osgoode’s facility in downtown Toronto, offers both degree and non-degree programming for Canadian and international lawyers, non-law professionals, firms and organizations. Osgoode has an internationally renowned faculty of 60 full-time professors, and more than 100 adjunct professors. Our respected community of more than 18,000 alumni are leaders in the legal profession and in many other fields in Canada and across the globe.

About York University
York University champions new ways of thinking that drive teaching and research excellence. Our students receive the education they need to create big ideas that make an impact on the world. Meaningful and sometimes unexpected careers result from cross-disciplinary programming, innovative course design and diverse experiential learning opportunities. York students and graduates push limits, achieve goals and find solutions to the world’s most pressing social challenges, empowered by a strong community that opens minds. York U is an internationally recognized research university – our 11 faculties and 25 research centres have partnerships with 200+ leading universities worldwide. Located in Toronto, York is the third largest university in Canada, with a strong community of 53,000 students, 7,000 faculty and administrative staff, and more than 300,000 alumni.
York U's fully bilingual Glendon Campus is home to Southern Ontario's Centre of Excellence for French Language and Bilingual Postsecondary Education.

Media Contacts:
Virginia Corner, Communications Manager, Osgoode Hall Law School of York University, 416-736-5820,
Gloria Suhasini, York University Media Relations, 416-736-2100 ext. 22094,