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.