Why do lawyers need to develop Reflective Practice?
The simple answer is – because the regulators tell us we must!
Seriously though, it goes a lot deeper than that. Here are a few reasons:
As purchasers of legal services become more sophisticated (in part due to the volume of information now available), regulators demand more from us and the legal services arena becomes more diverse. As a result, there is an increasing need for lawyers to develop strong skills in emotional intelligence.
Good lawyers need to apply sound judgement and undertake regular risk analysis. Such analysis should include your competence and skill levels to ensure that you are capable of delivering the level of service required to clients.
The opportunities for innovation in legal services delivery have never been better. Awareness of your competencies and skills allows you to maximise these opportunities and know whether you have the right resources.
Reflective practice supports development of all of these skills and opportunities. It also increases capacity to respond to challenges, make timely decisions, engage in productive relationships, manage stress and avoid burn-out.
There’s also a bit of science behind it as reflective practice can help to strengthen the neural connections needed to develop new skills and mindsets within and between the two hemispheres of the brain!
The BSB Bar Qualification Rules which came into force in April 2019 introduced the Professional Statement (published in September 2016) for Barristers which forms the foundation around which the Authorisation Framework is built. The Professional Statement is formed of four overarching categories containing 37 distinct competencies; it is these competencies which a student/future barrister will be trained to meet.
Whilst all of the competencies are important, there are two which I believe are more difficult to develop through traditional academic studies and qualification pathways; namely:
Competence 2.5: Adopt a reflective approach to their work, enabling them to correct errors and admit if they have made mistakes; and
Competence 2.6: Ensure they practise with adaptability and flexibility, by being self-aware and self-directed, recognising and acting upon the continual need to maintain and develop their knowledge and skills.
These competencies require significant self-awareness and self-analysis as the starting point. As these skills are more ethereal than would usually be expected to sit alongside legal training, it is understandable that many lawyers find the skills more difficult to hone or approach them with reluctance.
Anyone who is beginning to feel an inner sense of discomfort will not be alone; this feeling was considered to be the first stage of reflection by Boyd & Fales in their 1983 paper Reflective Learning: Key to Learning from Experience.
As students and pupils, the point of your learning so far has been to qualify as a practising barrister. Whether qualification is in a self-employed or employed capacity, there is a need to recognise that at the point of issue of your practising certificate, you will be responsible for your own development and ongoing competence; a point recognised by the regulators. By the time you reach the pupillage/work-based learning component of your journey, there should be clear recognition of this fact and the need to master reflective practice, setting priorities and self-development. There is often an assumption that reflection is automatically acquired during learning, however, reflection as with other areas of competence is a skill which needs to be honed, in order to achieve competence.
Reflective practice has both a process and outcomes. As with any process, there are steps to work through and different processes may be needed for different types of reflection. Whilst reflective practice may seem to require a more philosophical approach, at its core, reflective thinking requires interpretation and evaluation which are key skills that are developed on the path to becoming a lawyer; the difference being the information you are interpreting and evaluating is about yourself! Essentially, it is about generating awareness of your own knowledge, understanding, assumptions and past experiences and having the courage and confidence to use this knowledge to devise meaning, validate actions, solve problems and create action plans.
Because reflective practice can be influenced by attitudes or previous experience, there is a need to develop and adopt strong and conscious analytical skills and the ability to question your own assumptions and understanding in an openly critical way. Uncovering our own assumptions can be a challenge in itself. Educator and writer, Stephen Brookfield1 said “Becoming aware of the implicit assumptions that frame how we think and act is one of the most puzzling intellectual challenges we face in our lives. It is also something we instinctively resist, for fear of what we might discover.”
Once you can overcome these challenges and this fear, you can begin to recognise and determine the value of the knowledge and experience you can bring to each new situation based on critical analysis of your previous learning and experiences. American educational philosopher, Dewey2 said that reflective practice ‘enables us to direct our actions with foresight … it enables us to know what we are about when we act’.
Other benefits are:
Practising reflection creates an open environment to learning and often results in positive and creative development of ideas and understanding.
Reflection is an active dynamic process which brings clarity and opportunities both for self and team working.
The process is cyclical which lends itself nicely to continuous improvement.
Another aspect which ties in with the skills necessary for good lawyers is that reflective practice encourages analysing issues from different perspectives.
There are several models which can be used for reflective learning, some of which are quite simple and others very deep and detailed. Inevitably, the deeper the reflection which takes place, the more likely you will reap beneficial rewards. Reflection should not be seen as a task or chore, rather as a positive habit to develop. By doing so, even negative experiences can become beneficial as they will contribute to your continuing growth and success.
Consider that if you aren’t able to critically reflect on your own performance, how can you expect your clients to appropriately reflect either. This is particularly relevant in legal services delivery when as we all know, the outcome of a matter often does not correlate to an individual’s performance and skills.
There are many tools which can be used to support reflective practice such as journals, vision boards, simple lists, voice memos, mind maps and many more. You will know from your previous learning which tools suit you better or it may be that you want to try several before you find what suits you.
An important point is to use specific questions as a structure to work within. Below, I set out a couple of examples to get you started; it is likely that over time and as you develop the skill of reflective practice, you will develop these questions to suit your own style and needs.
When trying to develop new skills or undertaking a self-assessment against a particular model of competency or set criteria, then your best results are likely to come from proactive reflective questions, such as:
When you think about this skill - how do you feel? what do you picture?
How is this skill and what you felt or saw similar to other challenges or skills you have?
What are the fundamental differences?
Why are those similarities or differences significant to you?
How can this information help you to develop your skills?
If there were a scale of competence for this skill, what level would you consider yourself to be?
What broad experience/evidence do you rely on in support?
One of the more popular models is Gibbs’ reflective cycle which provides a framework for examining learning experiences. The model is suited to continual learning and development; the 6 stages are:
Description of the experience – analyse your awareness of relevant matters and consider the experience in detail.
Feelings and thoughts about the experience. Both during and after the experience. Consider how your feelings may have affected your performance or what impact they may have had on the rapport you had (or didn’t have!) with others involved in the experience.
Evaluation of the experience, both good and bad. Make sure you undertake critical and objective thinking and look at things from different perspectives.
Analysis to make sense of the situation. Here it is recommended that you consider and challenge any assumptions which have come into play.
Conclusion about what you learned and what you could have done differently to achieve a better result or reach your goal or objective. Imagine and explore alternatives.
Action plan for how you will use this insight and knowledge to deal with similar situations in the future. Consider general changes you might find appropriate to improve your performance and make sure you achieve competence.
Many people resist undertaking reflective practice on the basis that it is too time-consuming. Like any skill though the more you practice, the more effective you become and the less time you would need to specifically commit. With practice and assessment through the cyclical process, you will soon reap the benefits highlighted above and become proficient in reflective practice to the point where you are undertaking “reflection-in-action”; Schön3 describes this as the capacity of professionals to consciously think about what they are doing while they are doing it. In achieving this, you are moving up the competence ladder becoming consciously competent and perhaps even unconsciously competent (for more on the Competence Ladder, see our blog).