The time to think boldly about legal education is now
This is a time to think boldly about the possibilities for legal education and law schools. Recent posts on this blog testify to a renewed interest in re-examining the education of lawyers. As legal educators, we should be unafraid to question all aspects of our approach to legal education, even those practices that are so familiar that they seem beyond review.
For that reason, Lakehead’s proposal to integrate a law practice program within the confines of their three-year law degree might be lauded. Students who graduate from Lakehead will not need to complete an articling period to be called to the bar. The required skills and time in a practice setting are integrated into their three years of study.
The Lakehead plan might make sense, for Lakehead
Lakehead has a clear mandate: provide training to students who want to practice law in non-metropolitan areas, in smaller firms, presumably primarily in Northern Ontario. In a part of the country that professes to be short on lawyers, arguably a successful program would not require graduates to head to Toronto to article. If they did, many of them may never return to work in Northern Ontario. The mandate of the school would remain unfulfilled.
But before other law schools adopt a similar law practice program they should contrast Lakehead’s unique situation with their own. Osgoode has an articulated commitment to being a global, research-intensive law school; U of T has modelled how a law school might embrace interdisciplinarity; McGill has cut its own path with its transsystemic approach; Calgary has developed an outstanding skills program. It’s not clear that any of these schools would provide a better legal education to their students by committing their energy and resources to provide every student with a practice-environment placement and the equivalent of four months of skills-related courses.
For some students, a Lakehead-like model of legal education might be ideal. And in almost all of our schools, those students can make course selections that allow them to do just that. At Schulich, for example, about a third of our graduating class choose to spend four months in an intensive, well-supervised clinical setting. Given our breath of courses and our outstanding part-time faculty, students could also enrol in a full term’s worth of skills-based courses of the sort that the law practice program envisaged by the Law Society of Upper Canada demands.
But here’s the reality: most of our students don’t make those choices, even though they are already available.
Do we need to build a better mousetrap?
Should law schools further concentrate their resources on producing practice-ready lawyers? In my opinion, no. And here’s why: the notion that law schools should output practice-ready lawyers rests on a misunderstanding about the attributes of a well-educated lawyer and about the role of the law school in laying a foundation for life-long learning.
Admired lawyers are invariably those who:
- have a deep and broad knowledge of important subject areas of the law and the values, policies and principles that underlie them;
- understand the potential and limits of legal institutions and their essential characteristics in a society committed to the rule of law;
- have the ability to recognize and to define legal and public policy problems clearly, and to contextualize and view them from multiple perspectives;
- are able to identify the arguments and interests on all sides of any issue;
- appreciate the inherent ambiguities of language, the variety of potential meanings in a particular formulation, and who have an understanding of how context gives meaning to terms but also about the ambiguity of context itself;
- are able to determine the relevance of the methods, theories and findings of other disciplines to legal and public policy decision making; and
- have a deep appreciation of the multiplicity of factors that explain both legislative outputs and judicial decisions.
This list could go on, but the point is clear: the acquisition of the skills and knowledge of a well-educated lawyer is complex and difficult. That is the reason law schools are located in universities. And it’s the reason why we devote a significant amount of time to concentrated study in an academic setting.
Do we need to move beyond the “learning to think like a lawyer” mantra?
Yes and no. No one doubts that successful lawyers also have to be good at managing their time, running a business, working with clients, negotiating settlements, and drafting documents. Law schools should provide opportunities for students to build these skills. However, law schools should not be preoccupied with them in the same way they should be preoccupied with developing the knowledge base and cognitive attributes listed above. Important though they might be, practical skills can be learned in continuing legal education programs, from mentors, and yes, through the self-study for which a law school education should have prepared students. Good lawyers, like good law teachers, never stop learning. As John Dewy famously said, “education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself”.
Law schools cannot come close to preparing students for all the things they will experience or the challenges they will face in practice. But if they do not provide them with a full opportunity for acquiring the kinds of difficult-to-acquire-but-vitally-important skills that are demonstrated by well-educated lawyers, then law schools will have cheated students out of an incredibly valuable educational opportunity, will perhaps have limited their possible lifetime achievements, and will have deprived our society of a group of influential critical thinkers so essential to a flourishing democracy and a global marketplace.
Don’t get me wrong. I think we should all look carefully at our law school’s programs. It’s time for renewal. We can do better, I am sure. Kudos to Lakehead for thinking boldly. I hope the rest of us chart our own paths.