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Are Legal Clinics the Answer? Part 1

Before I embark on a brief exploration of whether clinical legal education can provide a solution to two difficulties facing the legal profession in Canada today, I must first make a disclosure. I am a big proponent of clinical legal education and as the incoming director of an excellent clinical program at the University of Victoria I have witnessed first hand the numerous benefits that this manner of education can have to students, the profession and the community as a whole. This experience allows me to approach this discussion not only from the perspective of a lawyer and consultant who has an interest in the future of the legal profession, but also from the point of view of an academic. In my experience it is often the disconnect between these two perspectives that is a cause for conflict and I hope in this discussion to move past this issue and establish that the expansion of legal clinics in Canada are in the interests of both the profession and the academy.

Before I embark on this discussion however, it is useful to provide some background. Clinical legal education took root in North American in the early 20th century when the first law schools in the United States recognized the need to supplement the case book method of legal education with the type of practical experience gained through the apprenticeship model that was the predominant legal education model in Europe at the time. This led to early clinics being established at universities such as Northwestern Law School and Yale. In the years following, law school clinics expanded throughout the United States and have since become an integral component of the law school curriculum across the country. The history of law school clinics in Canada reveals that their development is much more recent and in this country the integration of legal clinics into law schools has been a slow and measured process. Despite this, there are currently a variety of excellent legal clinical programs found at law schools across the country including the Business Law Clinic, Environmental Law Clinic and Law Centre at the University of Victoria, the Law Students Legal Advice Program at the University of British Columbia, the Osgoode Hall Community and Legal Aid Services, the University of Toronto Downtown Legal Services and many others.

In addition to the existence of numerous clinics across the country, the recognition that Legal Clinics have an important role to play in the education of young lawyers in Canada can be seen by the recent establishment of the Association for Canadian Clinical Legal Education. This organization, composed of clinical legal educators from across the country, was formed in part to provide a forum for legal educators to share best practices and to encourage the promotion and improvement of clinical legal education in Canadian Law Schools. Having witnessed first hand the many positive aspects of clinical legal education through my involvement with the Business Law Clinic at the University of Victoria I share the enthusiasm of the Association for clinical legal education and feel that this type of education experience can assist the profession in dealing with a number of pressing issues including calls from the profession for better-prepared students and the delivery of legal services to those who may not otherwise be able to access them.

Calls from the legal profession for better-prepared students – There is a growing voice within the legal profession in Canada for changes in the manner that law students are educated. This voice arises from the feeling that students are sometimes not adequately prepared to take on the duties of an articled student and eventually called lawyer once they have completed their legal education. While this perspective may be contentious, it is my personal opinion that there is a valid point to be made regarding the preparation of law students that must be explored. Movement towards setting some minimum standards across the country for legal education are afoot with the Federation of Law Societies of Canada recently proposing a new set of standards to ensure the entry level competence of newly called lawyers that includes the introduction of certain required courses at law school. These standards have been met with criticism from academics who, among other points, maintain that it is not the role of the profession to dictate the educational standards of law schools.

While this may be a valid perspective, it is my point of view that law schools in Canada should not be blind to the fact that the overwhelming majority of their graduates join the profession and have come to law school with the express purpose of learning the skills necessary to do so. In this regard, clinical legal education for upper level students can play a valuable role in preparing students for practice. Law school clinics allow students to apply the theoretical knowledge that they have obtained through class work in a safe and properly supervised environment. This practical application not only strengthens the lessons learned in foundational courses, but also allows students exposure to areas such as ethics that are difficult to fully appreciate in the abstract.

I am very curious to hear the perspectives of those in the SLAW community regarding the role of clinical legal education in Canada and encourage comments below to share your thoughts.

In part 2 of this exploration of law school clinics, I will discuss how the expansion of clinical legal education in Canada can play a valuable role in meeting the unmet demand for legal services that currently exists in the country.

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Comments

  1. I think this debate on the role of law schools in North America has clearly reached a point where the profession and law schools need to have a serious conversation.

    Having studied both common law and civil law at Canadian law schools (Victoria & Ottawa respectively), as well as having undertaken several legal internships (including the BLC at Uvic), I can bring my own perspective as a law student to this discussion.

    Personally, I see the best possible solution as a compromise between entirely theoretical academic training and a very practical training advocated by some professionals. This could be realized by law faculties in the following way:

    1. Leave the first year of law school as it is. Basic training in both public and private law subjects, as well as basic legal research techniques are foundational. I would be surprised if either the academic or the professional community would argue with this this.

    2. Leave second year as it currently is. At this stage, students should have the opportunity to explore different areas of the law through option classes.

    3. The big change to the current curriculum would happen in third year of law school. At this stage, students could elect between an academically oriented final year of study or practice oriented studies.
    – Academic: in addition to a number of option classes, students would take advanced legal research and writing classes, seminar classes emphasizing legal scholarship, undertake academically credited research assistant opportunities, judicial internships, interact and study with graduate level law students, etc. This is not an exhaustive list but merely suggestions.
    – Practice Oriented: in addition to a lesser number of option classes, students would choose between working at law school clinics, mooting, interning at law firms or in government, etc. Practical classes would also be taught by professionals, such as Corporate Lawyering, Family Law Practice, Advocacy, etc.

    I think this hybrid approach is worth consideration. It gives students considerable freedom to develop and focus their individual career aspirations. On the other hand, it would not require a complete overhaul of the law school curriculum – but rather would encourage law schools to develop both more practical research and clinical/practical opportunities for students. It would cultivate budding law professors, as well as giving law firms the option of hiring through either of the two streams of study.