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Gothenburg Law Clinic and the use of Threshold Concepts in Clinical Legal Education



In 2014, the Department of Law at the University of Gothenburg launched the Gothenburg Law Clinic, or Rättspraktiken, to offer students a way to gain increased practical experience through applied studies rooted in the tradition of clinical legal education (CLE). The core pedagogical element of CLE can be described as anchoring teaching in grassroots legal realities as a means of enhancing student reflection on the complex interplay between black-letter law and law in practice. In one of the courses offered at the clinic, the welfare law course, the CLE approach was combined with the use of threshold concepts (Meyer and Land 2003). In this article, we present these two pedagogical ideas, describe their implementation in curricula, and discuss potential developments based on students’ experiences. Our aim is to describe the ways in which using a CLE approach in combination with Meyer and Land’s notion of threshold concepts has enabled students to obtain advanced-level learning of welfare law.
Nordic Journal on Law and Society
Vol.04, no. 03 (2021), pp. 1-24
ISSN (online): 2002-7788
2021 Sara Stendahl, Otto Swedrup, Karin Åberg
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons CC-BY4.0
The Gothenburg Law Clinic and the use of Threshold
Concepts in Clinical Legal Education
Sara Stendahl1
Department of Law, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden
Otto Swedrup2
Department of Law, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden
Karin Åberg3
Department of Law, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden
In 2014, the Department of Law at the University of Gothenburg
launched the Gothenburg Law Clinic, or Rättspraktiken, to offer
students a way to gain increased practical experience through
applied studies rooted in the tradition of clinical legal education
(CLE). The core pedagogical element of CLE can be described as
anchoring teaching in grassroots legal realities as a means of
enhancing student reflection on the complex interplay between
black-letter law and law in practice. In one of the courses offered at
the clinic, the welfare law course, the CLE approach was combined
with the use of threshold concepts (Meyer and Land 2003). In this
article, we present these two pedagogical ideas, describe their
implementation in curricula, and discuss potential developments
based on students’ experiences. Our aim is to describe the ways in
which using a CLE approach in combination with Meyer and Land’s
notion of threshold concepts has enabled students to obtain
advanced-level learning of welfare law.
Keywords: clinical legal education, CLE, threshold concepts,
Rättspraktiken, Gothenburg Law Clinic
1 Email:
2 Email:
3 Email:
Nordic Journal on Law and Society
Since the 2014 opening of the Gothenburg Law Clinic, or Rättspraktiken5,
the Department of Law at the University of Gothenburg has offered courses
that are rooted in the established tradition of clinical legal education (CLE).
The core pedagogical element of CLE can be described as anchoring
teaching in grassroots legal realities as a means of enhancing student
reflection on the complex interplay between black-letter law and law in
practice.6 Students as well as teachers are energised by the engagement with
real problems, faced by real people in real society.
In our welfare law course,7 we have combined the CLE approach with the
use of threshold concepts, a pedagogical term first introduced by Jan Meyer
and Ray Land (2003) to describe fundamental ‘portals’ that help students
access complex and sometimes difficult-to-understand ideas and
troublesome knowledge(Perkins 1999). The term refers to concepts that
help students cross over ‘thresholds’ into new, previously inaccessible
‘rooms’ of understanding and insight. When processes of learning come to
a halt, threshold concepts can be used to enable students to breach such
difficulties and access a new way of thinking.
In this article, we present the two pedagogical ideas of CLE and threshold
concepts, describe their implementation in curricula, and discuss potential
developments based on students’ experiences. To our knowledge, there are
no previous accounts of how these two approaches have been combined in
practise. We hope to fill this gap by sharing our experiences in this article.
Our aim is to describe the ways in which using a CLE approach in
combination with Meyer and Land’s notion of threshold concepts has
enabled law school students to obtain advanced-level learning of welfare
law. While we argue the advantages of this combination, we write with an
open mindset, in search of dialogue and possible collaborations.
4 The authors would like to thank the editors and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier
versions of this text.
5 The name ‘Rättspraktik’ is a direct Swedish translation of “Law clinic”. The word ‘clinic’, which exists in Swedish
as ‘klinik’ is mainly used in medical contexts (health clinics etc), and was therefore avoided in favour of ‘praktik’.
6 We offer a more substantial discussion of CLE and the plurality of the term and pedagogical tradition below.
7 In Sweden, the term humanjuridik is sometimes used by practicing lawyers to indicate a specialisation in areas of
law where private citizens are in need of counselling (excluding business law). Welfare law could be described as
one broad field within the sphere of humanjuridik. Depending on where they are posted, students in the welfare
law course may deal with aspects of social security law, social assistance law, regulation of coercive measures,
procedural law, discrimination law, labour law, migration law, family law, criminal law, consumer protection law,
and so forth.
Sara Stendahl, Otto Swedrup, Karin Åberg
The Gothenburg Law Clinic and the use of Threshold Concepts in Clinical Legal Education
The article proceeds as follows: Section 2 provides background on clinical
legal education in a Nordic context and on Rättspraktiken and the welfare
law course. Section 3 discusses the two pedagogical ideas in focus: the
characteristic elements of CLE and the notion of threshold concepts as
developed by Meyer and Land. Section 4 describes the implementation of
these ideas in the curriculum and outcomes as identified through reflective
journals handed in by students attending the welfare law course. The last
section concludes with a short final reflection on the need to challenge
tradition and develop the teaching of law.
Background: Law clinics, a rare phenomenon in a Nordic
In this section, we present a short overview of the use of CLE in different
Nordic countries, then describe in more detail the setup of the Gothenburg
Law Clinic, or Rättspraktiken. For the Nordic overview, although we have
attempted to be thorough, we recognise the difficulty in providing a
complete picture, as some examples may have existed for only limited time
periods and experiences may not have been documented.
Clinical legal education in a Nordic context
The first documented example of a clinical program established at a
university seems to been in Copenhagen, Denmark (Wilson 2017, 87; von
Briesen 1907, 25). The Student Association for Securing Legal Aid for the
Poor (Studenersamfundents retshjaelp for ubemidlede), commonly known
as the Legal Aid Society, was founded as early as 1885 and received state,
city, and university funding (Heber Smith 1919, 227). According to historical
sources, the clinic handled an astonishing number of cases. In 1906, it
received 26 000 applications for assistance, resulting in more than 19 000
clients, with 88 cases that went to trial and 114 resolved through settlement.
Forty-two students were enrolled each semester, with one employed
attorney and another 42 lawyers volunteering at the clinic. While the Legal
Aid Society appears to have been affiliated with Copenhagen University,
there is no documentation as to whether the students received credits for
their work, though the pedagogical value of the clinic has been mentioned
by observers (von Briesen 1907; Wilson 2017). The Danish Legal Aid Society
is still in place but has since been renamed Copenhagen Legal Aid
Nordic Journal on Law and Society
(Københavns Retshjælp).8 Today, it is accompanied by similar
organisations, such as Gellerupparkens Retshjælp (Legal Aid of Gellerup
Park), which was established by Aarhus University but is now being run as
an independent institution.9
Norway has a strong tradition of CLE, in particular at the University of
Oslo. Similar to many law clinics in the Anglo-Saxon countries, two law
clinics were founded in the 1970s, following the 1968 student rebellions
(Johnsen 1984, 301). The first, Jussbuss (Law Bus), was established in 1972
by Professor Jon T. Johnsen and was, as the name implies, originally a
mobile clinic, operating in the Oslo region in a minibus (Johnsen 2011, 8). It
was followed in 1974 by Legal Aid for Women (Juridisk Radgivning for
Kvinner, or JURK). The two clinics are still in operation and have a long-
standing institutional affiliation with the University of Oslo. Today, a
number of similar clinics are in place all over Norway, such as
Jussformidlingen at the University of Bergen, the Legal Aid in Central
Norway (Jusshjelpa I Midt-Norge) at Trondheim University, and the Law
Council of Northern Norway (Jusshjelpen I Nord-Norge) at the University of
Tromsö (Robson and Hanssen 2005).
Apart from a mention of a Swedish law clinic in a law journal (League of
Nations 1924), clinical legal education appears to have been largely absent
in Sweden and Finland. However, interest has been growing over the last
decade, particularly in relation to human rights issues. Beside our
Gothenburg Law Clinic, a few other law clinics are active at universities in
Sweden. One of them, the human rights clinic (Människorättskliniken), was
established in 2016 at Uppsala University (Jonsson Cornell 2020). Another
was founded in 2019 and is an incorporated part of the human rights master
education offered by Lund University and the Raoul Wallenberg Institute
for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. At both law clinics, students do
documentation and research work, supporting strategic litigations by NGOs.
In Finland, the first law clinic was established in 2012 at the Åbo Academy
University. This clinic was initiated by the Institute of Human Rights and
provides pro bono legal services in issues concerning civil and political
human rights, implementation of international human rights treaties in
domestic legislation, regional and international human rights monitoring
Sara Stendahl, Otto Swedrup, Karin Åberg
The Gothenburg Law Clinic and the use of Threshold Concepts in Clinical Legal Education
mechanisms, international humanitarian law, and international criminal
law to human rights NGOs or other international institutions located
overseas (Pérez León Acevedo 2018). Between 2016 and 2018, a law clinic
was operating at the University of Helsinki, where law students provided
legal advice on discrimination, migration, and business law (Kmak and
Minishvili 2020, 2).
ttspra ktiken and the welfare la w cour se
Although university-based law clinics have not traditionally been part of
legal education in Sweden, since the turn of the century, new pedagogical
norms and ideals developed at universities and slowly made an impact on
the teaching by legal faculties. This growing interest in ideas linked to
student-centred active learning methods partly explains why it was possible
to launch and develop Rättspraktiken.
The Department of Law at the University of Gothenburg launched
Rättspraktiken to offer students a way to gain increased practical
experience through applied studies at a university law clinic. Rättspraktiken
was created as an interactive platform for education, research, and societal
collaboration where the offering of clinical courses to advanced-level
students was a priority. The first clinical course offered at Rättspraktiken
was the welfare law course; the second was a migration law course launched
in 2018.
The welfare law course is given at the advanced level of the master of laws
(LLM) programme and spans about five months. The course is both practical
and theoretical. When students apply, they are informed that along with
gaining practical experience, they should expect to meet distinctly
theoretical demands.
The law school students work full-time three days a week at the offices of
one of the partner organisations, be it an NGO such as the Red Cross, the
street magazine Faktum, the local office of the Swedish Union of Tenants,
or a public authority operation run by the City of Gothenburg. Each student
is assigned to a partner organisation before the welfare law course starts in
the fall and stays with this organisation throughout the semester. The
students become an integral part of the operations run by the partner
organisations. Students taking the course get to work in a variety of legal
areas and with a multitude of issues. Work assignments are based on the
Nordic Journal on Law and Society
issues that the particular partner organisation is working on, all with links
to the broader theme of welfare law.
In addition to the three days of work at the partner organisations,
students spend two days a week at the university, where they take part in
seminars, workshops, tutoring, or extracurricular activities. The students
have a common workplace at the university where they can work on their
cases in an environment where exchange of ideas and collaboration are
In order for the students to receive credits for their clinical work, the
welfare law course is set up as an elective included in the eighth semester
of the LLM programme. Students earn 30 credits upon completion of the
course, which corresponds to full-time studies over one semester. Eight
learning outcomes, formally stated in the syllabus, are used as the
pedagogical starting point when organizing the different learning activities.
The first learning outcome reads as follows:
Upon completion of the course, the students are expected to be able
to explain, criticize and combine a number of chosen threshold
concepts which are of central importance to the field of welfare law,
such as citizenship, welfare state, justice, rights and
It is important to note that this article focuses on only one of eight learning
outcomes that together define the ambitions of the welfare law course.
Parallel to an interest in challenging the mindset of students through theory,
the topic of this article, the course also provides students with an
opportunity to use law to achieve societal change.
Two pedagogical ideas with transformative aspirations:
Clinical legal education and threshold concepts
In this section, we elaborate further on the pedagogical foundations of CLE
and threshold concepts. There is a vast and growing international literature
on both of these ideas. We have referred to some recent texts that reflect a
renewed interest in CLE, not least in Europe, as well as more classical
articles that remind us of the still relevant pedagogical roots. We present
threshold concepts as they were introduced in the original article by Meyer
and Land (2003) and later further developed in subsequent texts (Meyer
Sara Stendahl, Otto Swedrup, Karin Åberg
The Gothenburg Law Clinic and the use of Threshold Concepts in Clinical Legal Education
and Land 2005; Timmermans and Meyer 2019). The literature on threshold
concepts includes a fair number of examples on how to implement them in
different disciplines, but distinctly less so in relation to the discipline of
Clinical legal education (CLE)
The term clinical legal education is broad and inclusive and can be used to
describe a range of different pedagogical initiatives taking place at
universities all over the globe in the education of law students (Ogilvy and
Czapanskiy 2005). That said, CLE as a pedagogical idea would be useless if
all inclusive. In the introduction, we mentioned a core signifying element of
CLE: it is a pedagogical approach concerned with the legal response to
current and urgent societal challenges, made visible in the needs of the
inhabitants of the local society. In CLE, there is an emphasis on ‘reality’ that
could well be interpreted as criticism of a traditional law curriculum for
being oblivious to the real world in its inability to close the well-known gap
between ‘law in the books’ and ‘law in practise’. Still, as Richard Wilson puts
it, CLE is to be understood not as a project to overthrow the traditional, but
as a way ‘to offer an alternative, additional route to learning, grounded in
modern ideas of cognitive science and adult learning.’ (2017, 1). In more
general terms, CLE falls within traditions of active or experiential learning
contexts, where one characteristic feature is the aim of getting students
involved in their own learning.
In terms of content, CLE places an emphasis on promoting training in
hands-on professional legal skills. Students are put in situations where they
have to fill in forms, make complaints, write specific pleas, and so forth.
Other skills linked to the legal professions that are acknowledged by the
tradition of CLE are oral presentations and client meetings. Students are
also trained in their ability to make themselves understood by those in need
of legal advice by avoiding professional jargon. Taken together, this
becomes a form of training in outreach and communication that, because
of its importance to the profession, has been designated as a special ‘street
law’ branch of CLE.
10 For an interesting exception, see Azam (2016).
Nordic Journal on Law and Society
While a strict focus on skills training could lead to the pitfalls of ‘micro-
lawyering’ (Wizner 2001, 330),11 an explicit concern with professional ethics
and social justice could function as a countermeasure. CLE is by tradition
explicitly normative and pleads that the value of rule of law, equality, and
access to justice are fundamental guidelines for the legal profession. To a
large extent, law clinics around the world reach out to groups and
individuals who, in one way or another, lack resources to access legal
remediesthe poor, the marginalised, disadvantaged groups and interests.
In line with these ambitions, Wilson (2017, 11) uses the term ‘lawyering with
conscience’ as a value to strive for, and Stephen Wizner (2001, 328) speaks
of the ‘legally underprivileged’ as a target for outreach.12
In terms of different legal subdisciplines, the clinical approach does not
exclude any, although how law is taught and what aspects are emphasised
are affected by the approach and its underlying values. There are clinics in
almost all legal fields, including public law, private law, migration law,
social law, environmental law, criminal law, constitutional law, feminist
law, children law, health law, and law of enterprises.
Applied to a university-based law clinic in Sweden, the CLE approach
radically challenges the traditional teacher-centric legal education through
its emphasis on learning by doing in combination with reflection (Wilson
2017). When the focus is shifted from how teachers teach to how students
learn, the consequences in the classroom are fundamental. The inclusion of
practise in curricula is one element in this shift of perspectives, a shift that
also affects all other interactions between students and teachers.
While all the above is of distinct importance for an in-depth
understanding of the pedagogical ambitions of CLE, the picture is
incomplete unless we also include the transformative aim that is embodied
in the emphasis on ethics and justice. Wizner writes, ‘Assuming the role of
advocate, under proper supervision by a clinical teacher, can change a
11 Wizner uses the phrase ‘micro-lawyering’ to describe the following risk: ‘Focusing exclusively, or primarily, on
client-centred interviewing, counselling, fact investigation, negotiation and written or oral advocacy can fail to
nurture students’ capacity for moral indignation at injustice in the world, or to challenge and inspire them as
lawyers to use what they have learned to work for social justice’ (2001, 330).
12 Wilson refers to the educational theorist Paulo Freire and expands on the topic of ‘lawyering with conscience’ as
a means to ‘strengthen the lawyer’s role in the justice mission of law: ”[In clinical legal education] the student
learns ethics and values in the context of human struggle and conflict where law matters, not in the arid and
passive review of statutes and appellate cases” (2017, 11). Wizner, in his turn, makes reference to John S. Bradway
Sara Stendahl, Otto Swedrup, Karin Åberg
The Gothenburg Law Clinic and the use of Threshold Concepts in Clinical Legal Education
student’s perspective about her client and the world in which her client
lives. It can even transform the student’s view of the world and lead her to
identify with her client and with others like her client’ (2001, 328). In 1969,
William Pincus, one of the key figures in the US clinical legal education
movement, said that law students need ‘to learn and to recognize what is
wrong with the society around [them]particularly what is wrong with the
machinery of justice in which [they are] participating and for which [they
have] a special responsibility’ (Wizner 2001, 331). Wizner describes this as
an assignment for clinical teachers to ‘sensitize students to what they are
seeing, guide them to a deeper understanding’ (2001, 338). With this
perspective, Wizner argues, the clinical teacher becomes a teacher not of
skills but of legal theory. On this we agree. This is also a perspective, as we
elaborate below, that distinctly resonates with the pedagogical aim of
threshold concepts. We can conclude that the transformative aim of CLE is
reached by challenging students’ preconceived ideas through face-to-face
confrontations with the realities of law and society. Threshold concepts are
also used with an aim to transform, although the means and methods differ.
The notion of threshold concepts
In the introduction to their 2003 article, Meyer and Land describe threshold
concepts as follows:
A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening
up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about
something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or
interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot
progress. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept
there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter,
subject landscape, or even world view. This transformation may be
sudden or it may be protracted over a considerable period of time,
with the transition to understanding proving troublesome (p.1).
The idea of a threshold is used to represent important, but sometimes
difficult and challenging, processes of transformation often involved in
learning troublesome knowledge (Perkins 1999). Knowledge can be difficult
to attain for different reasons, and gaining this knowledge has the capacity
to change worldviews as well as to give rise to a repositioning of the self
Nordic Journal on Law and Society
(Meyer and Land 2003, 2005). With the notion of threshold concepts,
Meyer and Land distinctly position themselves as interested in learning
processes that include such potential transformation.
Five characteristics signify and define threshold concepts: they are likely
to be irreversible, integrative, bounded, troublesome, and transformative
(Meyer and Land 2003, 5; 2005, 373). Threshold concepts are irreversible
because once they are grasped by the student, they are unlikely to be
forgotten. They are integrative because they reveal an interrelatedness that
was previously invisible to the learner. Furthermore, threshold concepts
are bounded, as they might represent lines of demarcation between
different conceptual areas. As they open up new spaces, boundaries to
neighbouring spaces are also established.
In addition, threshold concepts are closely linked to troublesome
knowledge. Perkins (1999) describes troublesome knowledge as knowledge
that is perceived as counterintuitive and foreign. The student may be
hesitant to accept such knowledge when first confronted with it. Perkins
identifies four types of knowledge that might prove difficult for students in
different ways: ritual, inert, conceptually difficult, and alien. Ritual
knowledge forms part of a social ritual and is knowledge that everyone
within the same setting learns. This may, for example, be certain names and
dates. Inert, or passive, knowledge is held but not actively used unless
specifically called for. Examples are understanding but not using certain
words or having knowledge of historical events but not connecting them
with current events. Conceptually difficult knowledge requires students to
connect various pieces of information that contradicts their everyday
experiences. Alien knowledge conflicts with previous understandings, as it
comes from a different perspective. Meyer and Land (2003, 9) have
suggested a fifth type of troublesome knowledge: tacit knowledge, which is
so internalised that it has become difficult to explain and thereby difficult
for students to access and understand.
Finally, threshold concepts are transformative, as the acquiring of
troublesome knowledge initiates a shift in the student’s perception,
identity, or discourse. When reaching an understanding of a threshold
concept, the learner acquires a different view on the subject, field, or entire
surroundings. The troublesomeness the student attempts to overcome
might also emerge from the particular academic language. Within different
Sara Stendahl, Otto Swedrup, Karin Åberg
The Gothenburg Law Clinic and the use of Threshold Concepts in Clinical Legal Education
fields, distinct discourses have developed in order to represent particular
perspectives. These might include not only alien words but also different
meanings for everyday terms. The transformation of a student’s perspective
is therefore usually accompanied by a change or extension in his or her use
of language (Meyer and Land 2005). Certain types of knowledge might also
bring about a change on the personal levelin the student’s identity, values,
feelings, or attitudeparticularly when studying politico-philosophical
subjects, such as Marxism or feminism. This change of perspective or
identity will unfold differently in different students. Since learning about a
threshold concept holds the potential to overturn a previous
understanding, these concepts might prove difficult to grasp. During the
learning process, students are likely to find themselves in a ‘liminal’ state,
struggling with feelings of being stuck (Meyer and Land 2005).
Implementation and results
The Gothenburg welfare law course has many of the core elements that
characterise CLE. It includes the element of practical experience by
allowing students to participate in the work done by local partner
organisations. As this involves face-to face meetings with individuals living
in dire situations, students are able to practise legal skills in real-life
situations. At the university, the students have their own classroom for work
and dialogue, and they take part in seminars and workshops. The
professional role of being a lawyer is discussed, problematised, and
experienced. The pedagogical approach is dominated by learning sessions
based on active student participation. While the teaching at the clinic thus
includes a variety of pedagogical techniques anchored in CLE, our interest
in this article is the overarching transformative aim of CLE, as this connects
to the transformative ambitions of threshold concepts. Therefore, we focus
on just one of the courses eight learning outcomes: the integration of
threshold concepts into the clinical sphere. To provide students a deeper
understanding of the role of law, and avoid the pitfalls of micro-lawyering,
the clinic’s teachers rely on theory and threshold concepts. The emphasis
on theory in the clinical course provides students with a theoretical toolbox
that, ideally, enables them to reflect on and deepen their abstract
understanding of their own emotional experiences.
Nordic Journal on Law and Society
As stated in the first learning outcome (quoted above), the threshold
concepts used for the welfare law course since 2018 have been citizenship,
welfare state, justice, rights, and legality/legitimacy.13 The chosen concepts
reflect the characteristics of the course. The legal content of the welfare law
course is determined by the legal needs of those whom Wizner (2001) calls
‘legally underprivileged’, rather than by disciplinary boundaries. The
course does not specialise in a specific, well-circumscribed area of law, but
rather in a specific sphere of human challenges.
Arguably, all students interested in welfare law benefit from deepened
knowledge about the welfare state, citizenship, rights, justice, and
legitimacy in order to strengthen their professional understanding of the
legal system as well as their own role within this system. This is also the
reality of many practising lawyers, who need a high level of legal skills
beyond those involved in the different specialisations and subdisciplines of
law. The choice of threshold concepts is determined by this ambition to
combine grassroots, hands-on knowledge of law with philosophy and legal
and political theory, as the combination is an essential aspect of any high-
quality legal education.
We suggest that each subdisciplinary area of law has its own specialised
threshold concepts closer to the legal norms in each regulatory field, but
also that there are overarching concepts that are fundamental and relevant
irrespective of subdiscipline. This is not a radical statement, as all legal
faculties provide their students with disciplinary specialisations as well as
courses on legal theory. What might be radical is to combine hands-on skills
with abstract theories in the same course. The welfare law course teaches
practical legal methods and ethics as well as theory as a means to achieve
the desired learning outcomes.
A closer look at the concepts reveals that they also differ in terms of
outreach. While welfare state and citizenship are essential for the specific
setting and content of the course, rights, justice, and legality/legitimacy are
13 There has been one adjustment in the use of threshold concepts over the years. Originally, the list of concepts
read citizenship, welfare state, justice, social rights/human rights, intersectionality, equality, legality/legitimacy
and social sustainability’. In 2018, we added a new, separate learning outcome that students are able to reflect on
legal phenomena with the use of different critical perspectives such as equality, intersectionality, and
sustainability. Thus, for the purpose of the course, the list of threshold concepts was made shorter, as those three
concepts were moved. At the same time, the general concept of rights replaced the more specific social
rights/human rights.
Sara Stendahl, Otto Swedrup, Karin Åberg
The Gothenburg Law Clinic and the use of Threshold Concepts in Clinical Legal Education
fundamental in the meaning raised above, and thus relevant irrespective of
legal subdiscipline.
Implementa tion: The use of threshold concepts in the welfare law course
Before discussing the chosen threshold concepts in relation to the criteria
put forward by Meyer and Land, we will look at how they are presented to
students in the welfare law course through literature, seminars, and
examinations. The threshold concepts are interlinked, and knowledge of
one of them affects understanding of the others. The account in this section
roughly describes how the concepts are introduced during the first part of
the course. The main format for teaching during the first theoretical portion
is participatory seminars or workshops based on individual reading of text
and questions and assignments, some of which are handed out in advance.
While part of each seminar is reserved for a collective exercise in the close
reading of text, all seminars include reflective questions that ask students to
make connections between theories and their clinical experiences. The
threshold concepts are examined cumulatively in three different
assessments: (1) a home exam consisting of four or five questions on the
literature and use of the concepts, (2) a critical essay on regulation, and (3)
reflective journals. Students are encouraged to use their practical
experiences as material for theoretical analyses.
The presentation of the concept of citizenship starts with T. H. Marshall’s
(1949) classical text on social citizenship, a point of reference in much of
what has been written on citizenship since then. The text by Marshall allows
for a discussion on the dynamics of citizenship, perceptions of rights and
obligations, and demarcations between citizens and noncitizens. A textbook
that introduces and contextualises Marshall, Socialpolitiska klassiker
(Classics in Social Policy), serves as an added basis from which to discuss
different aspects of citizenship (Johansson 2008). A comparative text by
Chiara Strozzi (2017) makes a distinct link to the different ways of legally
constructing citizenship and discusses its dynamic elements, the high level
of politicisation, and the main trends on a European level.
Socialpolitiska klassiker also introduces students to a spectrum of ways to
understand a dynamic notion of the welfare state. It provides an historical
perspective and focuses on three important scholars, Marshall, Richard M.
Titmuss, and Gøsta Esping-Andersen. Following the textbook, the main
emphasis when discussing the welfare state is work done by Titmuss and
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Esping-Andersen, including how critics have received their work. In this
section of the course, we introduce Anna Christensen’s (1997) theory on
basic normative patterns in the social dimension and use it as a bridge
between social policy and law. The combination allows us to emphasise, on
the one hand, law as the main instrument through which policy is
implemented, and on the other, law as a complex normative system in its
own right.
When Marshall suggests an historical necessity for modern states to
evolve a social citizenship, this is an argument interlinked with social rights.
It is also via Marshall that the notion of social rights is introduced to
students. The textbook highlights Anna Hollander’s analytical scheme,
grading legal rights as more or less weak or strong, and thus the classroom
discussion on social rights moves into the legal realm early on (Johansson
To make the classroom discussions on citizenship, welfare states, and
social rights relevant to the clinical realities students face, it is necessary to
move beyond the classical texts discussing the early welfare state and its
peak to more modern texts that relate to the present. We read Seyla
Benhabib (2004), who asks, “Who are we?” and problematises the
understanding of citizenship in an era marked by migration and questioning
of human rights. With the help of Merima Bruncevic (2017), we read Rosi
Braidotti (2013) and question our way of thinking and defining the legal
subject as a rights holder. And with Pia Kjellbom and Anna Lundberg (2018),
we focus on Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s legal cartography and how
geographical concepts can be applied in analysing a court case dealing with
rights to social assistance. In a similar manner, the functions of the post-
welfare state are problematised with references to a text by Nancy Fraser
(2003) and, as a means of bridging the gap between law and social sciences,
also a text by Sara Stendahl (2016), using Fraser.
For the concept of (social) justice, we start with Titmuss (Johansson 2008)
and then introduce different critical perspectives (rather than different
theories on justice). We read Kimberle Crenshaw (1989), Sören Olsson
(2012), and Åsa Gunnarsson et al. (2018), and through these texts we discuss
feminism, class, ethnicity, intersectionality, and social sustainability as
aspects of claims for social justice. Finally, at a stage in the course where the
focus is on legislative work and legal reform, we discuss legality and
Sara Stendahl, Otto Swedrup, Karin Åberg
The Gothenburg Law Clinic and the use of Threshold Concepts in Clinical Legal Education
legitimacy and read texts by Markus Naarttijärvi (2018), Kjell Å. Modeer
(2011), and Rami Al-Khamisi and Miran Kakaee (2019).
Outcome: Student responses
It is important, but difficult, to assess how well our pedagogical choices led
to transformative experiences for students. Over the years, we have read
student evaluations closely, and yearly adaptations have been part of the
regular work at the clinic. Overall, the welfare law course has received
positive assessments by students who have been grateful for their clinical
experiences as well as for their accumulated knowledge. There is an active
alumni association where former clinical students meet, something that
might be indicative of a transformative learning experience. The
Gothenburg Law Clinic has also received several awards.14 That said, it is not
clear how to assess transformation or at what point this should be done.
While we acknowledge our limitations in this regard, student responses
might shed some light on the value of combining CLE and threshold
In this section, we present several example quotes extracted from
reflective journals that students in the class of 2019 wrote while taking the
course.15 Students are required to write a 200- to 500-word post at the end
of each week as part of their assessment, a total of 15 entries over the course
of the semester. In these posts, students are expected to reflect on what
they have learned in the past week, from meeting clients and applying legal
method in their workplaces to impressions from seminars and literature.
Students are also encouraged to employ the threshold concepts in their
reflections. To be able to reflect on one’s own learning is one of the learning
objectives of the course, drawing on a central pedagogical idea in clinical
legal education (Tyler and Mullen 2011, 283). Only the examining teacher
has access to all the students’ reflective journals.
When selecting the quotes analysed in this section, we extracted all posts
from the reflective journals of the 2019 class and categorised them by week
and student. As the class had 26 students, each publishing for 15 weeks, we
received a total of 390 posts. We then searched this material for the
14 Paragrafen, the law students’ pedagogical award, in 2015 (
juridiska-foreningens-pedagogiska-pris), and the Pam Fredman Award in 2020.
15 All the students whose quotes were selected for this article have been informed of how the quotes will be used
and have given their consent.
Nordic Journal on Law and Society
following threshold concepts: citizenship, welfare state, justice, rights, and
legality/legitimacy. As we used different critical perspectives in the
discussion about justice, we also searched for the terms ‘intersectionality’,
‘equality’, and ‘social sustainability’, as well as some distinctions of ‘rights’,
such as ‘human rights’ and ‘social rights’. Out of the results, we selected five
quotes for inclusion in this article. These quotes are examples of writings
where students combined reflections on one of the threshold concepts with
reflections related to their practical clinical experience. The quotes should
be read as illustrations of the added value that we aimed for in combining
CLE and threshold concepts, rather than as proof of success. For
transparency, we also searched for quotes showing a different learning
process than the one outlined by Meyer and Land. Meyer and Land’s criteria
for threshold concepts focus on their capacity to be irreversible, integrative,
bounded, troublesome, and transformative. We return to these criteria in our
discussions of the student quotes.
Quote 1:
The text by Nancy Fraser opened my eyes to why certain measures
aimed at promoting equality are successful, while others directly
counteract development and instead hold back the groups they were
meant to support. For example, it is important that certain groups
are recognized as particularly vulnerable, in order for them to get
help with overcoming their exclusion from society (affirmative
recognition). Otherwise, if everyone is treated equally under formal
legislation which pays no attention to real-life power structures and
other conditions of society, there is a risk that many will suffer
indirect discrimination. In cases of, for example, refugees with
disabilities who turn 18 and come of age, it would be disastrous if they
were subjected to the same expectations as other asylum seekers, as
they might not have the same capacity to care for themselves as other
people above the age of 18. By disregarding the differences in such
cases, these people are being denied the possibility to reunite with
their families with reference to their particular dependency. It would
be better if the law were transformative and all institutions of society
aimed at including everyone.
This student shows knowledge of Fraser’s terminology and applies this new
vocabulary to fields of law in general as well as to the area of law that the
Sara Stendahl, Otto Swedrup, Karin Åberg
The Gothenburg Law Clinic and the use of Threshold Concepts in Clinical Legal Education
student has become familiar with at the course (an indication of both
integrative capacity and transformative change). The use of the phrase
opened my eyes todenotes a before and after (an indication of irreversible
knowledge). The meaning of equality has deepened for this student with
help of theory but also, arguably, through the combination of theoretical
tools and the emotions invested in the clinical work.
Quote 2:
This course has in a general sense given me a more nuanced idea of
the welfare state but also more specifically as I have gotten a better
picture of Sweden as a welfare state and the realities some people
face. There is a lot to say on this matter but right now I primarily
think about civil society and what a force it is when it comes to people
who fall between the cracks of bureaucracy.
The second quote is an example of an everyday term, in this case the welfare
state, gaining deeper meaning both through teaching, which the student
described as providing a more nuanced idea of the welfare state, and
through directly encountering people who fall between the cracks of
bureaucracy’, which caused the student to become aware of the previously
unknown realities some people face. The fact that the student
incorporated the role of civil society in discussing the welfare state could be
interpreted as a sign of establishing new demarcation lines (what Meyer and
Land tried to capture with the bounded criterion).
Quote 3:
Once again, I thought the week delivered useful tools for analysing
different aspects of society. I have previously read about
intersectionality when doing a Bachelor in Social Work but had
forgotten much, very interesting. I do nevertheless find it hard to
apply intersectionality and conduct an analysis of different
phenomena, something I will have to read more about. However, I
do understand not to perceive social issues from one perspective at
the time (only class, only gender, only ethnicity) and that is an eye-
opening tool for me!
In the third quote, the student talks about intersectionality, a learning
outcome in its own right, but also a concept used to enhance students’
Nordic Journal on Law and Society
knowledge about justice, one of our chosen threshold concepts. This quote
is included mainly because it so frankly describes the difficulties the student
had in fully grasping this notion, as well as what seems to have been a
process wherein the student struggled to understand the concept bit by bit.
The account does not reveal why and how this knowledge was difficult for
the student to grasp, but it might indicate that fully embracing the
implications of this knowledge is troublesome to the extent that students
resist or oppose the new knowledge (see section 3). It is also this element of
being troublesome that gives threshold concepts a transformative potential.
Quote 4:
After having had some time for reflection, I can conclude that I have
drawn several valuable lessons from this assignment. Perhaps the
most important one is not to confuse legality with justice. It is
possible the Labour Court would not have accepted our logiclegal
precedent might have stood in the way of our approachbut this
was about something totally different. As a union representative at
the local level, one should be able to find solutions the parties can
agree upon without having to take the matter to court. To be
unreasonable and say ‘this is the law’ will not provide a solution to
the parties. Rather, one should think outside the legal framework and
reflect upon the question ‘what would be most fair?’ To attempt to
interpret legislation in such a way as to achieve what is best for the
union member was a method I had never used before, but it turned
out to make a big difference. Therefore, this was a very educational
Here, the student has acquired new practical insights on how to act and
think in a professional legal role and, after reflection, tries to understand
and explain this new perception by turning to theoretical concepts used in
class. The student talks about justice and what is fair as a value to
countervail a detached legal interest in law for its own sake. It is a short
quote that touches upon most if not all of the threshold criteria. We sense
without knowing that what became revealed to the student, and the
student’s understanding of this, will influence and shape a future
professional role. Perhaps it could be argued that the capacity of the student
to reformulate the hands-on experience in more abstract terms, and vice
Sara Stendahl, Otto Swedrup, Karin Åberg
The Gothenburg Law Clinic and the use of Threshold Concepts in Clinical Legal Education
versa, strengthens the student’s confidence to reason in a qualified manner
about professional ethics.
Quote 5:
She [the client] spoke about citizenship, something we Swedes tend
to take for granted, and expressed such a longing for it. A citizenship
would guarantee her security in life as it would be accompanied by
social rights. And it made me recall Marshall’s idea of social
citizenship and the security that the institutions of society guarantee
as a consequence of said citizenship. And it became so painfully clear
when one meets people who are not experiencing that security that
one cannot even comprehend how it must feel to be so vulnerable
and precarious.
This quote reveals a student who was endeavouring to understand an
emotional experience using the conceptual toolbox provided. One aspect of
the transformative capacity of threshold concepts, according to Meyer and
Land, is that they can bring about a change on the personal level, in the
student’s identity, values, feelings, or attitude. In this case, we could argue
that the theoretical knowledge enabled the student to fully (or better)
understand the client’s situation. Potentially, we could also argue that it was
this face-to-face meeting with a woman desperately longing for citizenship
that made the theoretical knowledge not only relevant but also fully
accessible to the student.
In general, the reflective journals show that students often use the
threshold concepts to connect theory and practise. A common pattern in
these posts is that a student meets a client whose issues are related to a
threshold concept, and then remembers and reflects on the theoretical
perspectives on this concept. Students also appear to understand more far-
reaching consequences of changes in legislation and policy, as they make
connections between shifts in policy and their general knowledge of
broader concepts, such as the welfare state.
Final reflections
In this article, we have described how our welfare law course has combined
two pedagogical ideas, one more practical and the other more theoretical,
Nordic Journal on Law and Society
with the goal of providing students a means to gain deep, transformative
knowledge in their field. A high-quality legal education should make
students skilled in the profession, but it should also provide them with the
capacity to move beyond a toolbox knowledge of law to gain advanced
theoretical insights so that they might excel in their practice. Through the
example of the welfare law course, we have shown that there are many
potential advantages in combining clinical legal education and threshold
On a more general level, given the seemingly low standing of clinical legal
education in the Swedish context, the only difficulty in arguing the benefits
of a mix of hands-on practise and abstract theories is that it is hard to find
any counterarguments. By tradition, the university education of lawyers in
Sweden is distinctly academic and theoretical, but tradition alone is not a
strong argument for maintaining the status quo. We have proposed
something of a middle way, as the practical clinical experience, from an
academic perspective, serves as a means to enhance in-depth learning of
abstract concepts.
We situated our Gothenburg Law Clinic in the network of local nonprofit,
mainly nongovernmental, organisations working in the segregated city of
Gothenburg. The chosen threshold concepts are all fundamental in
character, and there is ongoing discussion regarding their content and
meaning, so lawyers working in the field of welfare law need to be familiar
with them. Around the globe, and close to the Nordic borders,
antidemocratic movements challenge legal systems, institutions, and rights
as we know them. The lawyers we educate today must be prepared to meet
resistance of a new kind. It is important for these lawyers to be educated in
such a way that theoretical insights and contextualisation will serve as a
foundation for their everyday legal decision-making. The combination of
CLE and threshold concepts allows students to practise such an approach
while under guidance as part of their education.
As we stated at the beginning of this article, we wanted to share our
thoughts and experiences related to a pursuit that is ongoing and ever-
changing. The clinic provides a constant trial-and-error learning experience
for us as teachers and researchers as well. Although we are enthusiastic
about what our clinic is doing and find that the students’ responses validate
our work, we do not consider the pedagogical questions raised in this article
Sara Stendahl, Otto Swedrup, Karin Åberg
The Gothenburg Law Clinic and the use of Threshold Concepts in Clinical Legal Education
as settled. We hope that this article will inspire others and serve as an
invitation to dialogue and collaboration.
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Notes on contributors
Sara Stendahl, LLD (2004), Professor of Public Law at the Department of
Law, Gothenburg University (since 2015). Her research interests include the
regulation of social security and welfare with a particular focus on questions
of legality and legitimacy, social justice and social human rights. Recent
appointments include a period of serving as a judge at the Administrative
courts (2020-2021).
Otto Swedrup is a doctoral candidate in Public Law at the Department of
Law, University of Gothenburg. His areas of interest include welfare law,
social rights and the civil society and his research focuses particularly on
Nordic Journal on Law and Society
the legal obligations and responsibilities of the public sector and questions
of how public authorities act in order to secure social rights.
Karin Åberg is a doctoral candidate in International Law at the Department
of Law, University of Gothenburg. Her dissertation concerns how European
asylum law and legal expectations interacts with humanitarianist values as
well as ideas of the irregular migrant as an economic actor. Beside European
asylum law, Åberg also writes about impoverished (Roma) EU migrants as
well as the correlation between law and grassroot activism and is active in
public debates on these subjects.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
p>The area covered by the Clinic must be one of the largest and most remote in the world. It covers the whole of northern Norway from Bodo in the south to Kirkenes near the Russian border, and includes the “counties” of Nordland, Troms and Finnmark. All of it lies within the Arctic Circle, which brings special challenges from the climate and thinly spread population. The permanent base is in Tromso, in offices behind the port loaned from Tromso University. From there student volunteers travel to visit most communes in the area, including Norwegian Lapland. Volunteers attempt to visit clients in each major commune at least twice a year, (cases came from 78 communes in 2003), either upon request, or by advertising a clinic session in the local commune building. Sessions in 28 major communes outside Tromso were held in 2003. The clinic is one of five similar clinics covering the whole of Norway, all founded upon operational and management principles pioneered by law students at Oslo University in the early 1970s. The Oslo JussBuss (literally the “law bus”) has passed into Norwegian legal legend.</p
This article studies emotions of students in light of the concept of clinical legal education and its pedagogy. It takes as its case study the Helsinki Law Clinic. The study shows that emotions constitute an important aspect of academic learning and they often guide students through the learning experience. The design of the course and the scope of the teachers’ involvement have a significant impact on emotions experienced by students and, through these emotions, on students’ motivation. The study showed that students who struggle with group work most and have negative emotions towards the collaborative setting of the course exhibited a perfectionist attitude. Students who express a more positive attitude towards group work expressed greater emotional satisfaction with both the course and their own performance, and received better grades. Those students who have indicated orientation towards performance and stressed the importance of passing examinations were most dissatisfied with group work. These findings show the importance of the role of teachers in regulating students’ emotions through guiding their work and continuously explaining the purpose of clinical education as more oriented towards collaborative problem-solving and learning by doing rather than as an exam to be passed.
Globally, the methodologies of legal education have not changed in any fundamental way, some methods dating back hundreds of years. Law schools have relied, for too long, on passive learning methods such as lectures or cases. Clinical legal education provides an alternative that is more than just another pedagogical method. It provides a way for students to experience their emerging professional selves, while providing services or projects with poor and underrepresented clients. This book documents both the historical origins of clinical experiments in the earliest days of US university legal education, and the now-global reach of clinical pedagogy as a proven tool for effective training of legal professionals. Comprehensively documents the earliest history of clinical legal education. Provides diverse regional views of the development of clinical training in law. Includes empirical evidence from the United States on the benefits of clinical legal education.
In this paper, we propose a framework to help educational developers navigate the now vast literature on threshold concepts, so that they may effectively support university teachers in their work to embed threshold concept knowledge into courses and programs. This research- and practice-informed framework consists of seven principles and seven clusters of activities. It includes an ‘actionable literature review’ – a distillation and synthesis of threshold concept-related knowledge that can be acted upon and adapted in a variety of settings by educational developers and teachers.
The aim of this Special Issue is to investigate the impact of free movement and EU citizenship on the laws that make up traditional residence-based social security schemes at the national level The contributions to the collection allow for comparative reflections between countries and in relation to their dealings with a multi-level normative spectrum. The character of the contributions, which are independent articles on the given topic rather than country reports based on similar methods and a common battery of questions and concepts, turn into an attractive invitation to reflect more freely on details as well as on the overall picture. In this article, I focus on two questions: Are there, in conflicts over free movement, any overarching trends, developments or patterns in how ‘residence’ as a legal criterion is deployed at the national level? And, what if anything do these insights tell us about the status of solidarity and social justice in Europe? In the analysis of the comparative results I turn to the work of Nancy Fraser and end up arguing in favour of a strengthened form of European social citizenship.
The past decades have witnessed a significant transformation in citizenship policies, in many countries of the world. While there is a degree of convergence in some dimensions of citizenship policies across countries (such as those related to dual citizenship liberalization, which account for about three-quarters of all citizenship liberalization policies in Europe since the 1980s), it is nevertheless not easy to conclude whether there is a general convergence toward more liberal or more restrictive policies. Liberal citizenship policies are generally inclusive of certain groups, or allow for a greater number of immigrants to become citizens through relatively easier citizenship requirements, restrictive citizenship policies are, instead, exclusive of certain types of groups, or allow for a smaller proportion of immigrants to become citizens through relatively more difficult citizenship requirements. Effectively, citizenship regimes cannot be reduced to a unique dimension of inclusiveness: they may be inclusive toward some groups while exclusive toward others. The current increasing pressure of international migration has brought citizenship policies to center stage on policy agendas. Citizenship laws indeed affect not only immigration policy, but also labor markets, welfare programs, and demographic trends. Research has shown that naturalized immigrants are actually better able to integrate in the host-country labor market (due to access to better jobs, different occupations, etc.), contribute more to the social welfare system (due to the higher wages they earn), and help to reverse demographic trends in society (due to their younger age with respect to the host-country population).
Purpose This paper aims to identify the threshold concept in intellectual property (IP) law. Design/methodology/approach It used doctrinal methods for such identification based on the existing pedagogical scholarship in the field of effective teaching and learning. Findings It explained how the use of the threshold concept in IP law education could facilitate understanding of IP law from globalised perspectives and validate use of IP in a balanced way. Research limitations/implications It is yet to be tested for practical curriculum design in different jurisdictions. Practical implications The understanding of threshold concepts in IP law could generate “eureka” moments, when, after a long struggle, students come to a deep understanding of a new concept. Social implications This will facilitate social acceptance of IP for balancing global obligation and national developmental and social goals. Originality/value Till date, little work has been undertaken on the threshold concepts on IP law. Therefore, this study tried to make a unique contribution by identifying threshold concepts in intellectual property law.
This paper arises from ongoing research undertaken by the Economics team of the ESRC/ TLRP Project 'Enhancing Teaching and Learning Environments' (ETL) 1 . This forms part of the large scale ESRC Teaching and Learning Research Programme Phase 2. ETL is seeking to identify factors leading to high quality learning environments within five disciplinary contexts across a range of HE institutions. Meyer's notion of a threshold concept was introduced into project discussions on learning outcomes as a particular basis for differentiating between core learning outcomes that represent 'seeing things in a new way' and those that do not. A threshold concept is thus seen as something distinct within what university teachers would typically describe as 'core concepts'. Furthermore, threshold concepts may represent, or lead to, what Perkins (1999) describes as 'troublesome knowledge' — knowledge that is conceptually difficult, counter-intuitive or 'alien'. The paper attempts to define characteristics of threshold concepts and, in the light of Perkins' work, to indicate correspondences between the notion of threshold concepts and that of 'troublesome knowledge.'