Fusing practice and theory in legal education

New ‘practical’ teaching association formed

A group of academics from universities, institutes of technology, private colleges and professional law schools gathered recently at a conference in Galway to consider the development of clinical legal education in Ireland.

Clinical legal education is a term employed to encapsulate a broad range of activities that focus on “learning by doing” and is widely recognised as the most significant innovation in the pedagogy of law teaching in the past century. It is a global phenomenon and clinical programmes are well-established throughout the common law world.

Clinical legal education, at its best, simultaneously equips students with practical know-how and with an understanding that the law and the legal system can be powerful tools for protecting human rights and promoting the interests of those on society’s margins, not solely for safeguarding the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

Attendees at the conference, which was co-hosted by the School of Law, NUI Galway and the Public Interest Law Alliance (PILA), a project of the Free Legal Advice Centres Ltd (FLAC), heard an inspiring keynote speech from Kevin Kerrigan, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Business and Law at Northumbria University and an internationally recognised expert in the field. At Northumbria, some 200 students work under the supervision of a cadre of full-time legal practitioners employed by the law school and represent indigent clients in approximately 1,000 actual cases annually.


Northumbria’s clinic, as well as providing students with extraordinary “real world“ experience, has achieved life-changing successes for those who have used its services.

Although clinical programmes in Ireland haven’t yet scaled these lofty heights, a number of Irish legal academics described exciting existing and planned initiatives in their own universities. In addition to long-established clinical programmes at NUI Galway and UCC, virtually every other Irish law school is now embracing clinical legal education. And Kevin Kerrigan devoted much of his keynote to outlining how Irish law schools can further enhance and expand their clinical offerings in these straitened times.

Buoyed by the energy and enthusiasm at the conference, attendees agreed to establish the Irish Clinical Legal Education Association (ICLEA) to ensure a set of shared objectives are met. These objectives include: establishing a vibrant forum for reflecting and sharing experiences; fostering collaboration where appropriate; lobbying law schools, and the broader institutions of which they are usually a part, for badly needed resources; seeking funding internationally; hosting regular conferences and facilitating smaller events; supporting scholarship on legal education; ensuring that time-consuming and labour-intensive clinical work is valued and recognised; and engaging at the highest level with those involved in clinical legal education in other jurisdictions.

Perhaps most importantly, ICLEA will work to improve and revamp the educational experience for the current and future generations of Irish law students who, on graduation, will encounter a very different world than their predecessors.

Larry Donnelly is a Lecturer and Director of Clinical Legal Education in the School of Law, NUI Galway. He has been elected the first President of the Irish Clinical Legal Education Association (ICLEA)