A Comment on Legal Education, Labour and Employment Scholarship and Labour and Employment Practice

This is a great time to be a Canadian labour and employment lawyer, but Canadian law schools now employ fewer full-time labour and employment professors than they have in decades. This post highlights the issue and invites comment about the relationship between our law schools and the maintenance of a vibrant and well-qualified labour and employment bar.

The declining faculty issue first caught my attention when, in February, York University professor David Doorey published a blog post entitled “Employment Law Practice is Booming, But Someone Should Tell the Law Schools.” Professor Doorey noted the significance of labour and employment issues to in house counsel and quoted statistics about labour and employment being a “top concern.” He also bemoaned the dwindling support for the practice by Canadian law schools as reflected in the declining number of their full-time faculty members who are dedicated to the study of labour and employment law.

As a proud member of the Ontario labour and employment bar and member of Hicks Morley’s student committee, I appreciated Professor Doorey’s suggestion that law schools should better prepare students to become practicing labour and employment lawyers. I immediately recorded (but never published) a message to law students about why they should consider becoming labour and employment practitioners. I explained how ours is a great practice for young advocates who are otherwise becoming more starved for hearing opportunities, how there’s remarkable variety to the practice (with developing sub-specialities in legal areas like human rights, privacy and pension and benefits law) and, finally, how it’s a great practice for building rewarding client relationships.

Of course, encouraging student interest in the practice is not necessarily the same thing as encouraging law schools to hire full-time labour and employment professors nor is it clear that the shrinking number of Canadian labour and employment professors is due to lack of institutional support. I spoke with Windsor University’s professor Brian Etherington last week, who raised the significance of market factors:

To a certain extent law schools are dependent on the research interests of the young scholars that are in the job market when they are recruiting new faculty. While they can attempt to entice established scholars away from other schools, their ability to do so successfully will depend on the willingness of such scholars to move and the resources made available by the university (which have been very tight in recent years) to lure them to their institution.

Professor Etherington’s point raises one of many good questions that need to be considered by those with an interest in labour and employment scholarship and practice. Are Canadian law schools failing to compete for talented labour and employment scholars? Who are they competing with? Or, if this is about the value Canadian law schools currently place on labour and employment scholarship, why is labour and employment scholarship not valued? Is student interest in a practice area a proper reason for hiring a full-time faculty member? Is full-time faculty member count the proper measure of support for a practice area? Are the number of upper year labour and employment courses (whether taught by faculty or sessional lecturers) a better measure? If the bar supports labour and employment scholarship should it have any expectation of return? What’s reasonable to expect?

At least some of these questions are being considered by the Canadian Labour Law Association – an organization with a mandate that includes promoting the study and understanding of Canadian labour law. The CLLA has recently embarked on a campaign to revitalize the teaching and study of labour law at Canadian law schools. According to an open letter recently written by CLLA co-director Jeffrey Sack of Sack Goldblatt Mitchell, the CLLA’s program will include meeting with law school deans to encourage appointments, funding visiting professors from abroad and organizing conferences on international labour law. I was able to reach CLLA executive committee member Brian Burkett of Heenan Blaikie for elaboration, and he explained that the CLLA is acting in the belief that developing and maintaining a strong and knowledgeable labour community (as a whole) is in the public interest. This non-partisan objective is admittedly more legitimate than that reflected in my own initial urge to promote the practice. The CLLA’s objective is not about members of the bar asking law schools, “What can you do for us?” and, instead, sets an objective that can be shared by scholars and practicioners alike.

Are you a law student, legal scholar, law school administrator or labour and employment practitioner with a view? Please comment!

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  1. Dan,

    I’m a practitioner and a part-time member of the faculty at Dalhousie Law School, teaching employment law. I largely agree with your points, but I’d like to add my perspective that a lack of full-time faculty is not entirely indicative of a lack of interest from the law schools.

    Obviously this is a matter in which I have a stake. I am in-house counsel for a major employer in our region, and I co-teach with a lawyer in private practice. We strive to teach a course that balances an academic perspective on employment law with some practical views on where the law is today, and where it is going. It’s a difficult job for those of us who aren’t full-time academics, but a very rewarding one. Our students consistently say that they find our class demanding, but also quite fulfilling.

    I find that employment law is a subject that lends itself nicely to that balance, and students get something different out of a course taught by someone other than a fulltime academic.

    This is not to say that there aren’t advantages to dedicating more full-time faculty attention to labour and employment issues. But I wanted to round out that perspective by saying, there is value in other approaches as well.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Kevin. Thanks also to David Doorey, who’s posted a link back and a comment over at his blog: http://bit.ly/16wycj More commentary welcome!

  3. Dan:

    Let me offer some of my thoughts on the state of labour and employment law at Canadian universities today. I agree with you that the area was seemingly stronger in the 1970s and 1980s, and that there appears to have been a fall-off in the number of labour law scholars in recent years. And I hope that the efforts of the Canadian Labour Law Association to increase labour law’s profile and the number of scholars working in the area bears lots of fruit.

    1. Law schools pay indirect attention to the market, and the social presence of labour law has declined from its salad days 30 years ago. Trade union membership in Canada peaked ay 38% in the mid-1980s and is now below 30%, the lowest figure in 60 years. Labour law reform has been largely stagnant across the country for 20 years, and unions have lost some of their political clout. While there are many exciting legal developments in labour law — most notably the importance of human rights law — this has not been enough to stem the perception among many law students that innovative and interesting legal developments lie elsewhere.

    2. From my vantage point as a law school administrator, the “elsewhere” is such topics as intellectual property and the many varieties of corporate law, as well as the standard attractions of civil litigation and criminal law. IP law and corporate law enjoy the largely accurate perception that they are happening areas of legal development, as well as promising lots of jobs and rather lucrative paying careers. Bright minds that two decades ago would have studied labour law appear to be gravitating towards the much-less staid legal practices on Bay Street.

    3. What is to be done? At Western, we have, with some success, tried a variety of ways to build interest in labour and employment law among students. These efforts include: (i) offering 8 upper-year courses in the area, many taught by top-drawer adjuncts from Toronto and London labour law firms; (ii) assisting the student labour law club with its many activities each year (firm tours, speakers, career panels, etc.); (iii) running school-based programs such as an annual labour law conference and lecture, organizing two yearly labour law moots with the support of Toronto; and (iv) building partnerships with labour law firms and unions for innovative projects, including internships at the ILO, a labour law speakers’ series as part of a revamped advanced labour law course, and the above-mentioned moots, conferences and lecture series. For many labour law firms, giving gifts to law schools has been a relatively new idea, but many of them have quickly warmed to the idea.

    There is lots that we as labour law professionals can do to re-build labour law’s image as a place to practice. But we must also be aware that, unless labour law itself regains some of the marketplace prominence that it enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s, our efforts will be blunted.

  4. To build on what Prof. Lynk (as we know him) said, labour law is also not necessarily commonly associated with the practice of law. Few applicants to law school would have this area in the forefront of their minds.

    I had never even heard of it as a distinct practice until my first year, but it didn’t take long at UWO because in my second month of law school there was a high profile Charter Conference that focused on labour law. Needless to say I was pleased with what I saw, and consequently will have taken several of the upper-year electives in labour and employment law before I graduate, even if it’s not an area I end up practicing in.

    Perhaps part of the solution not mentioned above would be more public education on the role of labour law in society. We all hear about strikes and labour disputes, but there’s a lot less coverage about the role of counsel in resolving these problems. Management and union sides can possibly celebrate the role lawyers play more publicly, perhaps thanking them more when conflicts are averted.