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Guidelines for Better Legal Workshops

These guidelines drawn on the practical experience of public legal education (PLE) workshop facilitators and staff at the Ontario Justice Education Network. They are intended for legal professionals who are providing PLE workshops to the community.

1.  Know your audience.

Assess what the community needs before you prepare your content. Talk to community members or local community workers to identify relevant topics.

To do:
  • Put the audience first; follow their needs and interests.
  • Expect a range of starting points. Some audience members will know almost nothing about your topic while some may have extensive personal or professional experience.
  • If members of your audience are under 18, plan for ways to avoid and manage youth disclosures. Be aware of your duty to report cases of abuse and neglect. Consider also the privacy issues around youth disclosure of a criminal record.
  • Anticipate how you will manage personal anecdotes, misinformation, or politically charged statements if they arise during your workshop.

2. Use or adapt existing resources.

Many legal clinics and public legal education organizations have produced excellent workshop materials, fact sheets, and other useful tools (like OJEN’s Steps to Justice Workshops). They are well-placed to create accessible, responsive materials that will work for the public.

To do:
  • Look online for resources or teacher’s guides on your legal topic from authoritative organizations. They will usually have set up the content in a sensible way and created helpful activities that are built on good pedagogy.
  • Use fact sheets and glossaries that have been developed by public legal education producers like the expansive glossary on the Steps to Justice website.
  • Explore resource libraries like the one at CLEO Connect.
  • Seek advice from community workers and adapt your resources to the specific needs of your audience.  

3. Make the content practical.

Explain how the legal topic works in practice, using realistic scenarios and examples.

To do:
  • Focus on elements that are likely to affect the audience.
  • Be realistic about the audience’s resources, especially around money, power, and risk.
  • Engage people with the reasons and ideas behind the rules. Most people enjoy talking about ideas of fairness and justice.
  • Be realistic about parts of the legal system that can be frustrating for the public. Don’t pretend that everything works perfectly at all times.
  • Acknowledge that ‘the other side’ has legal rights, too.

4. Explain your role and its limits.

Begin your workshop by explaining that you can’t give legal advice or discuss anyone’s personal situation, but you can give good information and help identify where they should go.

To do:
  • Explain your goals and focus on what you can do.
  • Give your audience accurate, up to date information and answer questions honestly.
  • Suggest places they can go for help or for more details.
  • Ensure that no one thinks they are receiving legal advice. You may need to explain the difference between legal advice and information.
  • Maintain clear boundaries about what you and your participants can talk about.
  • Take care in answering personal anecdotes or questions that may not be hypothetical.

5. Be a good host.

Treat your audience with respect.

To do:
  • Make your audience feel welcome and heard.
  • Offer food and breaks for longer sessions.
  • Be prepared, have an agenda, and manage your time carefully.
  • Give your audience the agenda before you begin.
  • Be clear but gentle when correcting misconceptions.
  • Consider the social location of your audience. Understand the privilege you hold.

6. Use clear and simple language.

Use plain language wherever possible when creating your materials and running your workshop. Your audience may include English language learners and people who struggle to read difficult text.

To do:
  • Get plain language training. CLEO Connect is a great place to start.
  • Avoid acronyms, jargon, and unnecessarily technical language.
  • Don’t talk too fast.
  • Stop and clarify if your audience is confused.

7. Define your legal terms early and often.

Sometimes your audience needs to understand a legal term because they are likely to hear it used. Explain the term the first time you use it, and re-explain if necessary later in the workshop

To do:
  • Use the correct legal terms whenever your audience will need to understand them.
  • Explain a term when you first use it, and then periodically remind people of its meaning if you are using it a lot later in the workshop.
  • Avoid acronyms. Wherever possible, use a descriptive short form instead. (Eg. “The labour board” instead of “the OLRB”.) If you must use an acronym, spell it out somewhere visible (like a whiteboard) and leave it up so people can refer back to it.
  • Consider including a glossary in your handouts or recommending one online.

8. Let the audience apply what they’ve learned.

Encourage people to internalize what they’ve learned by applying it to a concrete exercise.

To do:
  • Include space in your agenda for a practical activity.
  • You can use a scenario, a series of questions, or another kind of activity to let your audience work with the laws and issues you have just introduced.
  • Do not skip this step for adult learners, who prioritize information that has practical, real-world applications.
  • The younger your audience, the more interactive your workshop should be.
  • Browse some activity ideas here:

9. Connect the audience with free or low-cost legal services.

Most people don’t know where to begin looking for a lawyer and many can’t afford one. Be prepared to refer them to helpful free or low-cost services.

To do:
  • Be ready with the name of the local legal clinic, relevant public services, advocacy groups, community or other relevant organizations.
  • Make sure you understand what services these clinics and organizations provide.
  • Find out the referral organization’s other demographic guidelines. Most will have an income cut-off. Many will have geographic boundaries. Remember that these can change.
  • Include all of this information in your handouts.
  • “Just call me” is not a solution.

10. Provide take-away legal information resources.

Offer participants legal information resources they can take home and use after the workshop. Don’t leave them to rely on their memory of your workshop.

To do:
  • Bring copies of:
    • fact sheets,
    • promotional materials for services you mentioned,
    • glossaries,
    • links to helpful websites, or
    • anything else that will help them after the workshop is over.

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