Major Project: Legal Rounds

Well-used law books on a shelf

Kathryn Thompson and Michael Hawkes

Prototype of Learning Environment

Background/Problem Statement

Legal Rounds is inspired by Grand Rounds used by departments in medical school. Grand Rounds is a weekly presentation where medical residents present unusual cases primarily for the benefit of their fellow residents. The presentations follow a flexible formula that starts with a brief description of a medical problem, which usually spurs a brief question-and-answer session lasting a few minutes. The presenter then continues by talking about similar cases found in literature, and how those articles relate to the presented case. They conclude the presentation by explaining the patient’s current condition and plans for further treatment. The conclusion is normally followed by further discussion, with faculty members providing insights based on their years of experience. For faculty members and outside physicians, Grand Rounds is an opportunity to earn Continuing Medical Education (CME) credits for their attendance.

The concept of Grand-Rounds-as-Continuing-Education spurred the question of whether the concept can be adapted for other professions that also have continuing education requirements. The presentations are very formulaic, and this formula can easily be adapted to continuing education outside the medical field. This proposal is intended to adapt the formula to Continuing Legal Education (CLE) seminars for attorneys. Currently, to our knowledge, there is no such program that exists for continuing legal education. We also observed a gap in the US-based legal education system’s use of Problem-Based Learning (see Literature Review for more details). This means that attorneys may have not been exposed to this method of teaching and learning before. There is also no place in the existing CLE curriculum for such interactive instruction and we thought that the interactive model of Grand Rounds would be well-suited for another case-based profession such as law.

Project Instructional Goal Statement

Grand Rounds comes out of a tradition in medical education that is now known as Problem-Based Learning, or PBL. It is a way for learners to test and expand their knowledge based on ill-defined, real-world problems such as medical cases. The instructional goal is to provide local attorneys with the opportunity to continue their legal education and earn CLE credits while learning about topics that are timely and important to people in the legal profession. It is our hope that these Legal Rounds will provide an opportunity for attorneys seeking continuing education credit to develop and hone some of the critical-thinking and argumentation skills necessary to participate fully in Legal Rounds.

Literature Review

These presentations are structured using principles of problem-based learning aimed at an adult audience for continuing education purposes. This learning environment is largely formal and is also authentic in that the participants are examining real-life dilemmas using disciplinary tools while having access to experts modeling their thinking about the topic (Brown, Collins, and Duguid, 1989). This literature review will briefly explore principles related to problem-based learning as well as discuss the precedents for the use of problem-based learning in legal education and continuing education.

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning, or PBL, is a modality that comes out of medical education, and so is already well-poised to transfer to a similar case-based professional legal environment. What is now known as PBL originated in medical schools as a way for medical students to build critical thinking capabilities and problem-solving abilities by applying their academic learning to real-world problems (Barrows and Tamblyn, 1980). Problem-based learning has since been taken up by K-12 and postsecondary education as well as fields as diverse as “MBA programs, chemical engineering, architecture, economics, and pre-service teacher education” (7) (Savery, 2015).

Problem-based learning can take many forms and encourage many different cognitive skills, such as disciplinary thinking (Brush and Saye, 2017) and self-reflection (English, 2013). For our project, however, we would like to focus on PBL’s efficacy at teaching problem-solving skills specifically. Jonassen (2011) argues that “students cannot learn how to solve problems by learning about problem solving. They must engage with problems, make mistakes, conjecture about solutions, and argue for the best solution” (100). Jonassen goes on to say that certain kinds of scaffolds are necessary in problem solving focused problem-based learning: “analogical encoding, causal reasoning, questioning, argumentation, and modeling” (107-108).

Scaffolding is an important part of PBL. A major critique of PBL is that it does not provide learners with enough support or guidance to effectively create knowledge in a meaningful way (Kirschner et al, 2006). However, proponents of PBL point to studies that do show that students trained using a PBL-based curriculum score better on problem-solving measures than their peers taught by traditional lecture methods (Hmelo-Silver et al, 2006), and that indeed extensive scaffolding must be present in problem-based learning for it to be effective.

Precedent for Problem-Based Learning in Legal Education

The idea of using legal cases as a basis for the education of law practitioners is not a new one. Sylvester, Hall, and Hall (2004) describe how law students are often given “seminar problems” with clear lines for research and little unnecessary information. These seminar problems leave little room for any kind of problem solving: “In fact usually the first stage of any problem solving approach has already been done for the student – the information clearly defines the problem” (48). The authors critique this approach and instead advocate for clinical experience with real cases using principles of project-based learning. In particular, they emphasize the supervisor’s role should be “facilitator/partner not teacher” (51).

Grimes (2014) describes a problem-based legal education model that prioritizes problem-solving and expansive, cross-disciplinary thinking, two key elements of PBL. In conditions that mimic the workplace, students work in small groups on ill-defined, real-world cases using a series of steps that guide them through understanding, diagnosing, and solving the problem. There is minimal tutor interaction, but plenary sessions are also available for students who have questions.

In Winjen et. al (2017), a Problem Based Learning approach is used for undergraduates that utilizes the “Seven Jumps” method, a similar problem-solving strategy to that outlined in Grimes (2014). Students, with the support of a tutor/facilitator, discuss an ill-structured problem, disperse to do individual research, and then come back together to discuss findings and reflect.

In researching these programs, a fascinating trend emerges: none of these examples are from the United States. Sylvester et. al and Grimes discuss UK law schools, while Winjen describes Erasmus University in the Netherlands. Paul Maharg (2015) lists law schools using a PBL curriculum in Sweden, Colombia, and Australia, but none in the United States. Furthermore, research shows problem-based inquiry being used in law schools in Saudi Arabia (Alanzi, 2020), South Africa (Koraan, 2017), and Singapore (Wong, 2003).

Precedent for Problem-Based Learning in Continuing Education

Problem-based learning is also used in continuing education, particularly in but not limited to medical fields such as nursing. Problem-based learning is often connected with self-directed learning (SDL), and PBL approaches lend themselves well to promoting learner investment in their own education and professional development (Williams, 2001). For Jantsen (2019), “Refining nursing practice includes both formal and informal learning; however, significant nursing expertise is developed through puzzling and enquiring, an iterative process of learning while nursing” (2565).

Problem-based learning facilitates the development of problem-solving abilities and can serve to help advanced learners and experts direct their own learning and inquiry. Closson (2008) describes “problem-solving [as] the core concept of expertise, especially the ability to solve problems in original ways yet appropriate to the situation” (34). As in the case of the medical PBL examples, our legal rounds project seeks to help more advanced learners expand their thinking and problem-solving abilities.

Stegager et al (2013) describe a related concept to PBL in continuing education. FWBL, Facilitated Work Based Learning, is “a practice-oriented method for continuing education of highly educated employees working in practice” (163) that takes the principles of problem-based learning and seeks to apply them in a workplace setting. A facilitator familiar with the aspects of the topic has the responsibility of guiding learners’ inquiries. As in PBL, a central ill-defined problem is the focus, although the method of delivery may be more informal and “just in time” than more academically based PBL approaches.

Project Team

In this diagram of a hypothetical bar association education team, the Board of Directors is at the top. Under that is the Director of Legal Education, and under them is the Education Committee. Beneath this committee are the Law School Subcommittee and the Continuing Education Subcommittee. Underneath the latter subcommittee are three Continuing Education Coordinators for different parts of the state.
Diagram of a hypothetical state bar association education team

The Legal Rounds concept is proposed for a statewide bar association, which is assumed to have multiple people working on different sectors of legal education. Since the state has multiple large cities, coordinating all of the CLE activities would be too much for one person, so the activities in different parts of the state are handled by different people, who in turn coordinate with each other in a subcommittee. This subcommittee would in turn report to a regular committee that oversees the different sectors of legal education in the state.

The CLE coordinators recruit speakers and develop topics to be presented. They create the schedule, and file the necessary forms to have the activities accredited by the state courts and by the national bar association. The CLE schedule is created for six months at a time and takes federal holidays and summer vacations into account. The bar association will strive to have CLE activities for at least 40 weeks in a year.

The CLE subcommittee develops a broad list of topics from which CLE activities can be developed. Such topics can include “New precedents” or “New ways of thinking about old laws.” The State of Indiana requires a certain amount of ethics training per year for lawyers, so that could be worked into Legal Rounds as well. Legal Rounds activities don’t necessarily need to cover laws, but can also cover the business of practicing law.

Target Audience

The typical audience member is a licensed local attorney, ranging in age from their late-20s to late-60s, though some events may also be attended by judges or paralegals. All audience members have had formal legal training.

Learning Objectives/Outcomes

For each session, learners should be able to:

  • Clearly identify and state the component parts of the case and the relevant aspects
  • Identify the relevant areas of law to the case (copyright, personal injury, corporate, etc)
  • Discuss and defend their viewpoint on the case and its root problem
  • Identify any legal precedent from previously decided cases
  • Generate a recommendation or solution for the issues presented in the case

Legal Rounds Formula

The presenters should try to follow this formula, but can deviate if it better serves their presentation:

  1. The Mystery
    1. State the hypothetical problem in a sentence or two.
    2. Give a slightly more thorough explanation of the problem.
      1. Take no more than five minutes.
  2. The Drama
    1. Ask for audience participation.
      1. Try to anticipate audience questions.
      2. Reply to questions asked but try not to get sidetracked.
      3. Try to keep this between five and ten minutes.
  3. The Law
    1. Summarize similar cases and relevant precedents.
      1. Engage the audience in discussion.
      2. Take 15-20 minutes for this.
  4. The Conclusion
    1. Restate the hypothetical problem then summarize viewpoints or courses of action discussed with the audience.
      1. Take no more than five minutes.
  5. References
    1. The last slide should include a bibliography of works cited.

Instructional Strategy

Learning Environment

The learning environment is formal, and is an hour-long weekly seminar held during lunchtime. In normal circumstances the seminar would be held in-person and via videoconference for those who can only attend online. In exceptional circumstances, such as severe weather or the need for social distancing, the seminar becomes an online only event. The seminars are arranged and scheduled by a CLE coordinator employed by the bar association. The seminars are recorded and made available for viewing by bar association members.

For presentations delivered in-person, the presentation will be pre-loaded onto a computer in the bar association conference room. For presentations delivered via videoconference, the presenter will need to use a computer that has a web camera, microphone and speakers, and they will be required to share their screen.

Since the concept of Legal Rounds and PBL may be one that is unfamiliar to CLE coordinators, the designers will work with the coordinators to develop schedules, lists of topics, and create a demonstration talk to help them understand how the formula works in practice.

The designers will also be available to help selected speakers use the Legal Rounds formula to create a presentation, and help them determine the best way to deliver their talk and engage with the audience.

Instructional Products

The CLE coordinator will provide each speaker with a generic PowerPoint template with bar association branding, along with instructions on using the Legal Rounds formula.

The week before they are due to present, the speaker is to return their finished presentation to the CLE coordinator, who will check it for spelling and formatting errors, as well as making sure there are no problems with any embedded images, videos, or audio.

Instructional Methods

Each seminar has one or two speakers who present hypothetical legal cases (hypos) based on the Legal Rounds formula provided to them by a CLE Coordinator from the bar association. We have decided to use hypothetical cases as opposed to real cases for a few reasons. First, there may be issues of client confidentiality in using real cases, especially ones with unusual or distinct circumstances. Secondly, using an ongoing case may possibly cause bias in any attending attorney or judge who may be associated with the case. Last, due to the nature of legal cases, they may not have an open-and-shut resolution that corresponds exactly to a medical diagnosis.

Presenters are instructed to consult real cases to make the hypothetical case as realistic as possible, including the addition of details that may or may not be directly germane to the true root issue of the case. This is to help learners practice their problem-solving skills and move away from the kind of pre-selected, artificially streamlined test cases often used in legal education that only include relevant information and have clear lines for research.

The type of legal case used is left up to the presenter, but the association may seek out presenters with certain expertise and ask them to speak on a particular topic.


The amount and types of scaffolding are left up to the presenters, though the Legal Rounds formula encourages them to involve the audience, not only to allow the audience to ask questions, but also to ask thought-provoking questions of the audience. This is a form of soft scaffolding, in which the presenter responds in real-time to the audience members to help facilitate their understanding.

Assessment Procedures

To earn CLE credit, each attendee must text a specific code to the association. During the online presentation, the attendees are reminded to text the code in order to earn credit for attending. After the presentation is done, attendees are encouraged to fill out a survey to evaluate the presenter. The survey results will help the CLE coordinator decide whether to invite the presenter to come back in the future.

Since there is a lot of ambiguity in the law, and there are often no right or wrong answers, learners are not formally assessed. The presenter is encouraged to stop periodically to check and see if the audience has any questions, and to ask questions of the audience to see if they understand.


Alanzi, A. A. (2020). The Models of Legal Education: Implication for Saudi Arabia. Journal of Education and E-Learning Research, 7(3), 235–241.

Barrows, H., & Tamblyn, R. (1980). Problem-based learning: An approach to medical education. Springer Publishing Company.

Brush, Thomas, & Saye, John W. (2017). Successfully Implementing Problem-Based Learning in Classrooms : Research in K-12 and Teacher Education. Purdue University Press.

English, M. C., & Kitsantas, A. (2013). Supporting Student Self-Regulated Learning in Problem- and Project-Based Learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 7(2), 127–150.

Grimes, R. (2014). Delivering legal education through an integrated problem-based learning model: The nuts and bolts. International Journal of Clinical Legal Education, 21(2), 1–26.

Hmelo-Silver, C., Duncan, R., & Chinn, C. (2007). Scaffolding and achievement in problem-based and inquiry learning: A response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 99–107.

Jantzen, D. (2019). Refining nursing practice through workplace learning: A grounded theory. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 13–14, 2565.

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Koraan René Hilary Cheryl-Anne. (2017). Student-centred problem-based learning as a transformative approach to legal education. The Independent Journal of Teaching and Learning, 12(1), 104–113.

Maharg, P. (2015). Democracy Begins in Conversation: The Phenomenology of Problem-Based Learning and Legal Education. Nottingham Law Journal, 24, 94–111.

Savery, J. (2015). Overview of Problem-Based Learning: Definitions and Distinctions. In Essential readings in problem-based learning: Exploring and extending the legacy of Howard S. Barrows (pp. 5–16). Purdue University Press.

Sylvester, C., Hall, J., & Hall, E. (2004). Problem-Based Learning and Clinical Legal Education: What can Clinical Educators Learn from PBL? International Journal of Clinical Legal Education, 4, 39–63.

Stegeager, N., Thomassen, A. O., & Laursen, E. (2013). Problem Based Learning in Continuing Education—Challenges and Opportunities. Journal of Problem Based Learning in Higher Education, 1(1), 151–175.

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