Starting Off on the Right Foot

“The conundrum that regulators have is that we are to all intents and purposes recognizing entry-level competence,” Tim McGee, CEO of the Law Society of British Columbia told a CCCA lunchtime panel at the 2013 CBA Legal Conference in Saskatoon, discussing what the role of the regulator should be in ensuring competence in the legal profession.

His point was that despite CLE requirements, lawyers aren’t actually assessed by regulators as their careers progress – it’s assumed that if they attend an accredited law school, get a certain degree and pass a bar exam, law students are competent to become lawyers.

It’s worthwhile to unpack the idea of entry-level competence because not all law schools are built the same – and where you end up is quite often a factor of where you started.

So how do you define entry-level competence? Is it black-letter law or is it practical skills?

Going by responses to the online questionnaire on cbafutures.org, there is no consensus on what law schools need to teach in order to set their students up for entry-level competence: some say law schools need to teach more “hard” skills (e.g., contract law), some say more “soft” skills (e.g., public speaking); some would have law schools focus on business skills, while others say more technical skills are the ticket.

There would appear to be a wide-spread consensus that more practical skills are the way to go until you read a comment like this one: “We have intentionally ceased hiring graduates from law schools … which are more ‘skill-oriented’.”

Well, you can’t please everyone all of the time.

Nathalie Des Rosiers, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa, says legal education has been changing with the times to help prepare students to be flexible enough to move from career to career over the course of their working lives. Law schools are putting more of an emphasis on practical skills development while not ignoring the core skills that any lawyer will need, such as critical thinking and writing; the ability to analyze a problem and propose a solution.

“In any job, we don’t teach students how the photocopier works,” says Des Rosiers, “but to me it’s normal that there would be within the first six months an adaptation to the corporate culture of the place where they’re going and some sort of small practical skills.”

Ivan Merrow, a law student at Queen’s University, says law students need more marketable skills – something that is best provided by “robust practical training programs.”

“Law schools need to picture the kind of lawyer they want to graduate and work backwards. Are their graduates ready to start a practice, or are they a liability?” asks Merrow. He believes law schools should be modelled after the University of Victoria’s law co-op program.

“Students should gain experience working in public, private and not-for-profit practice areas before they decide that corporate law is their dream job.”

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