Add ethics and values to legal education, researchers say

Researchers from Nottingham Law School have called for an increased emphasis on ethics and values in the law curriculum.

Graham Ferris and Rebecca Huxley-Binns, members of the law school’s Centre for Legal Education, made the call after conducting research into law student motivation and how it can be strengthened or weakened by study.

With existing research in the USA showing that studying law often leaves students feeling stressed and detached from their studies, the research team gathered and studied material from diverse sources such as student surveys, cognitive psychology, ethics and philosophical work and neuropsychology.

Their findings suggest that reforms are needed to improve the welfare, commitment and personal development of students, including an increase of ethical content in legal education and more of an emphasis on values.

Ferris said: “The existing research in America has consistently demonstrated the surprisingly negative effects of legal education on the mental health of students. The effect has been serious and lasting, thus creating a problem for the legal profession captured by the description of it by one researcher as “unhappy, unhealthy, and unethical.

“However, the problems are not limited to one jurisdiction, and they are not peripheral.  We need to focus on the nature of the student and how to facilitate making legal education personally meaningful to them. The importance of the mental world of the student and issues of self and identity need to be identified for practical purposes, so they can be doing well by being good,” he said.

While Huxley-Binns, added: “Students are taught what the law is, not how to feel about it. During their career they will likely be faced with a variety of ethically difficult situations, and as they progress they may start to care less about their earnings, and more about whether they’re making a difference.

“They should be equipped to deal with these thoughts and feelings from the start. Our research findings point strongly towards an emphasis on the professional ethics of both the professions and the academic world in putting questions of values squarely on the agenda,” she said.