I Believe the Law Students Are Our Future

This past spring, I designed and taught an upper-­year course at the Allard (i.e. UBC) School of Law called “Access to Justice and the Modern Litigant.” For three hours each Thursday afternoon, my students and I discussed the deepening crisis in access to justice for working and middle-­class Canadians. We explored the philosophical foundations of the common law, traced the evolution of the concept of equal access to justice, and considered different sociological analyses of how ordinary Canadians interact with the civil justice systems built to serve them. We also reviewed the history of public legal services in Canada, and analyzed past and present justice reform efforts undertaken by the legal profession, the judiciary, governments and other justice system stakeholders.

The course generally flowed from the broad and theoretical to the minute and practical. It included an observational (if not experiential) learning component where the students spent a day observing marginalized individuals being helped by front­-line lawyers and advocates through community legal organizations like Pivot Legal, First United Church and Access Pro Bono. Asked to reflect upon their site visit and to consider how their observations corresponded to their expectations, the students invariably noted how the interests of justice system users seemed more compromised than not by more “efficient” forms of system design. They learned that navigating our justice systems without formal legal training is more often a bewildering and fruitless exercise.

I learned a lot as well. As a first­-time adjunct professor with basic academic credentials, I presented myself as more of a curator of concepts, perspectives and subject experts than an all-­knowing lecturer. I enlisted the help of brilliant thinkers like Jacob Weinrib, Margot Young, Julie Macfarlane, Lance Finch and fellow Slaw contributor Omar Ha­Redeye. We talked, listened and learned. And though it was all intellectually edifying, the total of so much informed talk of justice system dysfunction was something of a bummer. The classes on the future of legal practice seemed particularly unsettling for the students. Bad news was piled upon bad news; there were more examples of Millennials entering a once beckoning practice landscape now besieged by global competition, technological replacement, professional deregulation and soaring administrative overhead. Yet again, they were arriving late to the party.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Amid the bleak talk of increasing practice threats and pressures was buoyant talk of new and lucrative practice opportunities (most serving to increase access to justice for working and middle-­class Canadians) for brave new law school graduates with their ears to the ground. Some students lamented the fact of not being informed until then of the full range of real-­life considerations—risks, opportunities and all—for choosing a real­-world legal practice (or not). I also wondered why it was left to an upper-­year law school course as small and elective as my own to provide candid information about something so important as the prospects for professional achievement and impact across different legal practice areas in a rapidly changing world. Shouldn’t this be one of the first things taught to all law students?

Which finally brings me to my modest proposal and the point of this column: Canadian law schools should require first­-year law students to take two half-­year courses focusing on the real­world dynamics—past, present and future—of Canadian justice systems. The first course should focus on the users of our justice systems. The second course should focus on the legal service providers.

In the first course, law students should be taught about the realities of limited access to justice for ordinary Canadians, and the circumstances of how and when individuals navigate our justice systems in pursuit of timely and fair resolutions to legal problems. To bring the limitations of our justice systems to life, the course should include a substantial clinical component where law students provide free legal information and advice services under close supervision to low-­income communities. It should cover the long histories of inequity and discrimination produced and perpetuated by unequal access to justice (with a strong focus on the mistreatment and marginalization of Aboriginal people), and it should include skills-­based training in intercultural competency and conflict resolution consistent with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

In the second course, law students should be taught about the shifting winds of the legal marketplace, and the new professional opportunities that emerge from marketplace disruptions. This should be more than group guidance counseling, and should invite students to think critically and creatively about solutions to the access to justice crisis, and about their potential roles and responsibilities as future legal service providers. This should all be done while law students remain system outsiders (i.e. more members of the public than members of the legal community) and before they are taught legal skills and to “think like lawyers.” With the forecasts of legal futurists like Richard Susskind and Jordan Furlong in mind, law students can make informed, autonomous and proactive decisions about where they wish to take their budding legal careers—and maybe solve a few access to justice problems along the way.

There is no shortage of outside calls for new requirements in the first-­year law school curriculum. Many people say that law students should graduate with the real skills and knowledge needed for early deployment in the conventional law firm environment. In other words, law school graduates need to be more “business-­ready”. I say we need to get much more real than that.


  1. Thank you for this excellent piece. This is useful contribution to the discussion about what has to be done to help law students be prepared for the economic and social realities of practice. The future for most law students in the coming years will not be in big law firms or academia but in finding ways to provide legal services to the people who are the most desperately underserviced — the poor and the middle class. Looked at economically this is where the unserviced demand is. Looked at socially this is where the greatest challenge is.

  2. Sarah Glassmeyer

    Is your syllabus published anywhere?

    Also, I really like your teaching method/idea of “professor as content curator”.

  3. Thanks, Robert. My sentiments exactly.

    Sarah– I’ll tidy up the last working version of my syllabus and then send it your way. My “curator” teaching method was by necessity because of the breadth of the course topics and because I’m a rank amateur when it comes to teaching/lecturing. All in all, I was really pleased with how it turned out.

  4. Great article and it also supports the reason I wrote my book for regular people on the very basic root need for access to justice which is to be able to even read and understand legislation in the first place.

    Good to see such a concept being introduced as possible courses

    John Dunn

  5. Jaime, Albert Einsten, a cool dude like you, once said: “Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.”

    A2J is a little bit more complicated because you point out so astutely, that the winds are shifting.

    And yes, gaining cultural competency is a good place to start.

    PS Syllabus. A copy for me too. Please.

  6. Super post. I’d love to take this class. At Windsor Law, we are at least part way towards Jamie’s vision. Access to Justice is a mandatory first year class, and we cover many of the issues identified here.

  7. James Williams

    “I also wondered why it was left to an upper-­year law school course as small and elective as my own to provide candid information about something so important as the prospects for professional achievement”

    I quite agree. At Osgoode, we have courses in legal tech and the business of law that touch upon the state of the legal marketplace. These are not core courses, but small upper year electives. Given that law schools are the gatekeeper to a self regulating profession, the lack of emphasis on career outcomes is shocking.

    Data from the USA, UK and Australia reveal rapidly changing legal markets. A good (and recent) book on the state of the profession is “Glass Half Full: The Decline and Rebirth of the Legal Profession” by Benjamin Barton.

    “[the second course] should invite students to think critically and creatively about solutions to the access to justice crisis, and about their potential roles and responsibilities as future legal service providers.”

    This is a great idea. However, I think the average law student doesn’t have the drive or initiative to take this seriously. Most of them enter law school under the assumption that it is a relatively deterministic path to a career. You get good grades, get an articling spot, work hard, and you are eventually rewarded. Some would embrace this sort of challenge, but others are in law school precisely because they are not creative, proactive or entrepreneurial. They want a relatively safe bet, with prestige and a decent income. (All three of those are increasingly in doubt).

    My students at Stanford don’t fall into this trap, but Stanford is a school that self-selects individuals with initiative and creativity. The bulk of my Canadian students have little interest in doing anything outside the traditional ‘get good grades and land a job with a firm or the government’ model.

    However, driving away applicants might not be a bad thing. There are far too many students in law school who should not be there, as Professor Barton points out in his book. We are better off with a new vision for a legal system that actually addresses the vast unmet demand for legal services.

  8. Interestingly, much of the change in law is coming from business-to-consumer (B2C) law firms rather than business-to-business (B2B) law firms.

    That said, The Legal A Team, (legal PR expert Jana Schilder and lawyer coach Gary Mitchell) in partnership with and DSM Corporation are devising a curriculum aimed at solo lawyers, smaller law firms and law students.

    We’re calling this “The Business of Law” Seminar Series. It will be a monthly series (1-hour monthly webinars) on these topics: 1) Getting the structure of your law firm right, 2) Getting clients, 3) IT Infrastructure, 4) The right way to build a website, 5) Building your reputation through public relations, 6) Improving your “close” rate, 7) Search Engine Marketing (SEM), 8) Improving your SEO by writing and publishing, and 9) Social media.

    We are in conversation with the LSUC and it appears that our program will be green-lighted for CPD accreditation.

    Stay tuned to LinkedIn for more details, just after Labour Day 2015.

  9. Sarah McCoubrey

    Great post Jamie.
    I like your proposed breakdown focusing first on how people use and percieve the justice system first and then turning the classroom lense to the business and delivery methods. Those tend to be treated as completely separate, and of interest to different groups of students. Your proposal would help make important connections.