On the Future of Law School

Over two and a half crisp autumn days last month, The University of Alberta Faculty of Law capped its centenary celebrations with a stimulating conference: The Future of Law School. I imagine a conference so named can either entice or repel, depending on one’s interest in the plethora of discourse on practice-ready graduates, tomorrow’s lawyers and the goals of legal education. Firmly in the camp of the enticed, I made the homecoming weekend trip to the U of A to hear the thoughts of the stellar lineup of presenters.

The keynotes, panels, and question sessions brought external experiences and ideas—notably US, UK, and Australian—into a distinctively Canadian examination of law school, the legal profession, and the relationship between the two. The sessions deconstructed the central question along a temporal trajectory from legal education foundations, through circumstances and challenges, to well-tested and more novel practices.

In their talks and their papers, presenters offered excellent specific points and ideas, and these in turn generated hundreds of tweets within and beyond the auditorium.

While I have more yet to say about the conference, here I write about a personal highlight.

A mid-conference keynote from Professor Harry Arthurs, Dean Emeritus of Osgoode, won my favour. Professor Arthurs set the backdrop for the first full day—if not for the entire conference—with his assertion of three visions, and a prediction, for the future of law school. He admittedly left little suspense about his prediction from among the three visions.

First, he suggested a vision that law schools should prepare practice-ready lawyers, able to function well in today’s profession. He offered an alternative vision that would see law schools preparing tomorrow’s lawyers, able to adapt to rapidly changing practice circumstances.

Finally, he advocated—and predicted—a third vision: that successful law schools will participate in creating and transforming legal practice, the profession, and the legal system itself. They will produce graduates who are capable of thinking and reasoning as lawyers and principled human beings should do. I understood Professor Arthurs to say law schools can do this by doing what they do best and can yet do better: They will immerse students in their knowledge communities—and they can treat those knowledge communities as homes for reflection on experiential learning opportunities. They can expose them to various forms of interdisciplinarity and thereby broaden and diversify thinking. And they can maintain or expand offerings of optional courses that reach and teach beyond legal rules.

So Professor Arthurs advocated or predicted several specific things about the ideal future role of law schools. Notably, much of what he propounds as ideals are already solid and growing legal education practices—interdisciplinarity and experiential learning, for example. At another end, a thread of discussion led to talk of tiered law degrees, optional limited programs, and law school paralegal training.

Some will disagree with the Professor Arthurs’s prediction—perhaps with the extent of the optional curriculum or the university-based law school as the ideal knowledge community for educating lawyers. I found it persuasive; I’m sure others were skeptical. In any case, his presentation certainly was interesting and prompted much lively discussion in question-and-answer and, simultaneously, online. I’ve compiled a sampling of discussion and specifics of the Professor Arthurs talk in a Storify to illuminate this further.

What are others’ reactions to his three visions and a prediction for the future of law schools or legal education?

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  1. This to my mind shows the increasing disconnect between the reality of the modern law school and the reality of odeon practice. First, in this picture I see less and less of what actually constitutes law and particularly the common law practice. Increased choice in law school curriculum divorced from a sense of what practice will in fact entail will do little to serve students and much to serve a faculty with little interest in law. Second, I’m distinguishing between “practice ready” for today as opposed to producing lawyers for tomorrow Professor Authurs misses two things. These students will be practising today and not in some unknown future. Further today’s lawyer is necessarily looking to tomorrow — indeed it is today’s lawyer that is creating that tomorrow. It is time for the law schools to see themselves as part of the profession rather than separate from (and generally above) the profession.

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