Learning Innovation Unit, Dublin City University

Learning Innovation Unit

Teaching Reflections

Learning the Law: Simulation in Legal Education

By  Dr. Noelle Higgins and Dr. Yvonne Daly, Socio-Legal Research Centre, School of Law and Government


As far back as the 3rd century BC Aristotle noted the need for “an understanding of the role of character and emotion when arguing the law before judge or jury” (Hill, 2005). Law students can learn much from reading cases, studying legislation and considering academic articles, but it is only through experiencing legal argument and making out a case before a judge that they can truly come to understand the nature of the law and its many complexities. In the academic year 2008-2009, a project (funded by the Learning Innovation Fund (LIF) Project Scheme) was undertaken within the School of Law and Government to assess the benefits, or otherwise, of simulations in the teaching and learning of law. The results of that project are presented herein, following a brief account of the theoretical basis for simulations as a learning technique. 

Pedagogical theory on simulation 

Simulation activities have been used for training purposes in many fields, such as the military and sports, for a number of years in order “to bridge the gap between theory and practice” (Tansey and Unwin, 1969). Simulation activities came to the fore in an educational context in the late 1950s, and were originally employed in universities in the training of school administrators. Students were provided with materials – such as letters from parents – and they had to respond to these authentic documents (Wynn, 1964). It was felt that practice with such materials and ‘problems’ would provide better training for the future administrators than focusing solely on sterile theories and guidelines. The concept of using problems based on real-life situations in order to educate students has been much expanded in Europe by the University of Limburg in Maastricht which, since its foundation in the 1970s, has used Problem Based Learning (PBL) as its pedagogic philosophy. The School of Medicine in the University of Limburg was first to adopt this approach, ‘the Maastricht approach’, and the Law Faculty soon followed. Instead of being provided with theoretical knowledge in a traditional lecture structure, law students were provided with problems as the “starting point for self-directed learning activities” (Moust and Nuy, 1987). 

Simulations within legal education 

Moot courts, defined as the “argument of the legal issues raised by a hypothetical case which takes place in the imaginary setting of a court of law,” (Snape and Watt, 2005), were first introduced as an educational tool the early 14th century by the Inns of Court in the UK and have been part of education since then (Dickerson, 2000). During this time the centrality of such simulation activities within legal education has fluctuated. Varying techniques of legal education have found favour at different times, but simulations have generally had at least some role to play in the training of future lawyers. In the UK and Ireland mooting and other simulation activities have traditionally held a more prominent place in the vocational institutions, usually attended after the completion of an undergraduate law degree. In the past number of years, however, there has been increased emphasis on the use of simulations in Irish undergraduate law schools as educators seek to fill the gap between theory and practice. 

The DCU project 

To obtain empirical evidence on the advantages and disadvantages of the use of simulation activities in the learning of law (which is generally sparse), a project was undertaken in the School of Law and Government at DCU in the academic year 2008- 2009. A moot court activity was carried out in a postgraduate module on the MA in International Conflict and Security Studies programme. The students simulated an International Court of Justice case, playing the roles of lawyers, representing states, with the lecturer playing the role of judge. The main issue was based on the conflict in South Ossetia in the summer of 2008 and the students represented Russia and Georgia. In an undergraduate criminal law module a mock trial was undertaken. This centred on a murder charge and a defence of self-defence, based, to a large extent, on the controversial Irish case of D.P.P. v Pádraig Nally (2007). In this mock trial simulation, students played all roles from witnesses and jurors to counsel and judge. Both simulation activities were well received by the students and in general the standard of preparation and oral delivery was very high. Feedback received from the students by way of a questionnaire – focusing on learning outcomes and learning experiences, as well as the design and execution of the simulation exercise – was most positive. Students seemed to gain much from the experience: increasing their understanding of the practical application of the law; enhancing their advocacy and legal reasoning skills; and opening their eyes to the reality of the legal profession. Students considered that they engaged with the course material more through the simulation experience than they would have done via other mechanisms, such as writing essays. 

Figure I set outs some of the student feedback received. 

  • “Hands-on learning makes learning about the law more exciting and interesting.”
  • “Considering the legal implications from both sides of an argument was enlightening.”
  • “[The simulation] provided practical insights…that would be harder to experience from pure essay/presentation work.” 
  • “A lot can be learned from books but it is important to experience it in its proper setting.”
  • “Working out the problem was much easier in this environment.”
  •  “[The simulation activity] gave me an understanding of how to build a legal argument” and created “the ability to make a cohesive legal argument.”
  • “[It was] great to be able to explore the area of law in this practical manner to see if we would be interested in a career in law.”
  •  “It gives a more realistic idea of everything as opposed to relying on Ally McBeal as career guidance!”

Figure I: Student feedback

Notably, all of the students stated that they would like to have more opportunities to participate in such real-life scenarios and simulations in their study of the law. The main benefits which the students gained from the simulation exercise, along with the difficulties which were encountered, are listed in Figure II. 

  • It honed legal reasoning and argument skills.
  • It improved critical analysis skills. 
  • It helped oral presentation skills.
  • It aided in confidence building.
  • It promoted teamwork.
  • It allowed the students to become more comfortable with legal terms.
  • The students saw the practical application of the law and were able to understand court procedure.
  • The students interacted with each other in a different way.
  • The students understood the substantive principles of law better. •Students thought that the simulations activities were fun! 
  • A fear of the Judges!
  • Time management: especially in the oral presentation aspects of the simulations.
  • Teamwork skills.
  • Some students wanted a more formal setting for the simulation activity (it had been carried out in an ordinary classroom). One student stated “We didn’t get to dress up in wigs and gowns.”

Figure II: Benefits and diffculties

Some of the difficulties highlighted by the students actually reflect the reality of law and legal practice; some of the undergraduate students found it difficult to get all of the information from the witness for example. This can be seen as a benefit of the simulation activities as the students gained an insight into how law works in practice, rather than just focusing on legal principles. Similarly, difficulties relating to teamwork to some extent reflect the reality of working with others in a legal environment. Interestingly, the feedback highlighted that the students wanted a more realistic setting for the simulation activities, rather than an ordinary classroom. While the wearing of wigs and gowns may not necessarily lead to better learning outcomes for the students, it can be argued that the more ‘realistic’ a simulation is (e.g. using proper courtroom etiquette and dress) the better. Dedicated courtrooms are available in some universities internationally, which would add to the mooting experience. A dedicated moot courtroom has been in operation in the University of Limerick for a year, while another Irish university is working on establishing one. 

On reflection, the lecturers were very happy with the simulation activities and with the positive response from students. However, a number of difficulties with these activities were noted, including the large amount of time spent on organising and running the simulation (despite some assistance from a barrister and PhD students), while organisational difficulties in timetabling and finding appropriate rooms were also encountered. 

There can be difficulties too in selecting the problem scenario on which the simulation is to be based. The scenarios chosen as part of this project were based on real-life issues, therefore there was some difficulty in accessing up-to-date resources. 

Conclusion and future research 

This study was a small scale study, involving only two class groups and a total of 52 students. However, the student feedback on the learning outcomes of the simulation activities was positive throughout and there was very little divergence in the responses provided by the students regarding advantages and disadvantages of simulations over other types of learning activities. The consensus, which can be observed in the feedback, is important as it gives support to the inclusion of simulation activities in the law curriculum. We suggest that exercises such as moot courts and mock trials should have a prominent place in the modern law curriculum. To further our research on this area, and to provide a basis for future advancement of simulations in Irish law schools, we are currently undertaking a two-tiered project (again funded via the LIF Project Scheme). This project will involve: (i) a wide-scale analysis of attitudes towards mooting and other simulation activities among staff and students in law schools throughout Ireland, and among prospective employers, in order to consider the value of such activities within the law curriculum; and (ii) the holding of a national mooting competition for third level law students. It is hoped that this project will fill some of the void in terms of empirical research on the benefits of experiential learning, through simulations, for law students. We look forward to sharing our future findings with you! 


Dickerson, D. 2000. In Re Moot Court. Stetson Law Review. 29 (4), pp. 1217-1227. 
Donnelly L. 2008. Irish Clinical Legal Education Ab Initio: Challenges and Opportunities. International Journal of Clinical Legal Education 13, pp 56-64 
D.P.P. v Pádraig Nally [2007] 4 I.R. 145; [2006] IECCA 128. 
Hill, D. 2005. Practice makes perfect: use of practitioner led mooting to develop and enhanced student centred learning experience. Paper presented at the Vocational Teachers Forum IV. 
Moskovitz, M. 1992. Beyond the Case Method: It’s Time to Teach with Problems. Journal of Legal Education. 42, pp. 241- 270. 
Moust, J. and Nuy, H. 1987. Preparing Teachers for a Problem- Based, Student-Centred law Course, Journal of Professional Legal Education. 5, pp. 16-30. 
Rachid, M and Knerr, C. 2000. Brief History of Moot Court: Britain and US. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Southwestern Political Science Association, Galveston, Texas. 
Snape, J. and Watt, G. 2005. How to Moot: A Student Guide to Mooting. Oxford University Press 
Tansey, P and Unwin, D.1969. Simulation and Gaming in Education. Methuen Educational Ltd. Wynn, R. 1964. Simulation: Terrible Reality in the Preparation of School Administrators. The Phi Delta Kappan. 46, pp. 170-173.

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