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17 August 2023

Redeveloping a capstone unit with Dr Nicole Siller

How do we teach students to apply the theories they’ve learnt in their degree in their career? Dr Nicole Siller, Senior Lecturer at Deakin Law School (DLS) is redeveloping the LLB capstone unit into a mock law firm, giving students an authentic, practical understanding of applying the laws that they’ve learnt throughout their degree in a meaningful way.

We spoke to Dr Siller about the redevelopment, who she’s collaborated with throughout the process and the benefits to students.

Can you tell us about yourself and your role at Deakin?

I started at Deakin in 2017. I practice primarily in the area of criminal law. I came to Deakin after completing my PhD in the Netherlands and before that I was a criminal prosecutor in the US. I am am now admitted to practice in Australia.

I primarily teach in the Bachelor of Laws – LLB criminal law unit (MLL114), and I have a real passion for infusing authentic practical experiences into legal education to make the legal profession more accessible to students before they enter the workforce. To this end I have worked in the work integrated learning (WIL) space, both as WIL Director for the Faculty of Business and Law, but also developing WIL opportunities for students at the Deakin Law School. This has included projects expanding the Deakin Law Clinical offering to include a policy advocacy practice area and the mooting program to allow for students to earn credit for participating in a variety of moot competitions.  

My latest project is redeveloping MLL427 Advanced Legal Problem Solving and Persuasion, the Deakin Law School capstone unit in the LLB, so that it has a more authentic approach to learning by linking the theory and practice of law.

Can you tell us about the redevelopment of the capstone unit?

MLL427 is a compulsory unit, teaching students what practicing law looks and feels like, the physical, emotional and intellectual constraints, considering the ethical implications of things that lawyers face when representing clients. The redevelopment changes how the students learn this information, from being passive to active learners. Specifically, students learn or sharpen these vital skills by performing tasks essential to a lawyer.

DLS decided to redevelop MLL427 to integrate the learning activities that we thought were important for a capstone unit to have, but through a simulated learning environment that will recreate what students most likely will be doing once they graduate law school. Students begin their capstone unit with an induction into their legal traineeship at Deakin & Associates, a mock law firm. At the beginning of Trimester, the students receive two client files, one civil file and one criminal file. All of the learning activities and all the assessment tasks involved in the unit will be built for students to progress those files forward, as they would have to do if they were a lawyer in a practice. This includes interviewing the client, doing work for the client, and having to engage either with opposing counsel or with the court. The students get to practice a variety of essential skills they will need when they enter the world post graduation.

It’s an interesting opportunity for students to actually see how a file progresses organically and how vital it is that lawyers are across the law, the requirements, and the available options. It really hits a lot of important points that students need to be aware of before they graduate.

Who have you collaborated with on the project? How have the Strategic Educational Initiatives team been involved?

It’s been interesting work in progress, a collaborative work in progress, and it’s still not complete yet, but we’re getting towards the finish line.

I was awarded  a DeakinDesign Seeding Grant last year to help fund quite a bit of the initial work that was required to engage in the redevelopment. DLS and the Faculty of Business and Law also provided even more resources, with colleagues to help develop some of the resources that I needed in order to make this simulation a reality for the unit.

In terms of designing and creating, I’ve been very fortunate to collaborate with some really great colleagues, specifically Puva Arumugam from the Business and Law Learning Innovations team. She’s been helping me with learning design, project management, developing educational tools needed for the unit and for student learning. I’ve also been working with Jonathan Rogers, an Interactive Learning Designer from the Strategic Educational Initiatives team who has been helping with H5P and designing icon images.

Peter Lane, Christian Bass and Michael Wescott have been working on video production, working with paid actors and academics on example videos of the client interview process from different perspectives. The videos will also have value for other units too. The SEI team have done such a nice job that the Law School has given me the green light produce a few more videos in the same vein as it concerns oral presentation skills before the court.

What advice do you have for staff who might want to start a similar initiative?

First and foremost, do research to see what else is out there. I used part of the seeding grant money to hire a research assistant to actually do a survey of all of the law schools in Australia to see who’s running capstone units, what those units look like and what simulations were out there. You can learn from others so you don’t necessarily need to reinvent the wheel or so you can avoid issues others have encountered undertaking similar projects.

Consider just how time and labour intensive the project would be to build, then also to run every trimester before you jump into the development. Make sure you’ve got the support from your faculty, school or your department so that the workload is manageable.

Really consider scaffolding when you’re building and redeveloping a capstone unit, so that you can take what students have already learned and put that into practice, showing them the progression of where they started, where it’s going and why it’s important.


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