Law School by Design

I am pleased to participate in this regular series of posts from the Council of Canadian Law Deans (CCLD) sharing insights and ideas on Canadian legal education. This past summer, I explored the impact of design principles on the justice system and since then, I have been reflecting more on the impact of design principles on Law Schools.

Has our legal education system developed as a series of ad hoc measures, policies and programs or has it been designed according to a plan? This question is being asked more broadly in Law Schools as legal academics and lawyers bring design principles to the question of where and how people access legal education, where and how people learn about law, and where and how people solve the problems that matter most in their lives. Whether the new Calgary Curriculum, the Integrated Practice Curriculum at Lakehead or McGill’s Transsystemic Legal Education, more Law Schools are differentiating their programs by design.

The principles and practices of design may themselves change the way we think about Law School. Margaret Hagan’s at Stanford University is a case in point – dedicated to “marrying legal expertise with design thinking to help people better understand the law and improve access to justice,” the project has already created more than 10 apps, including Law School Dojo, which use quizzes to help users gain a better grasp of the law and the GRE respectively. Her work is dedicated to fusing legal and design expertise to transform how people may access legal information, advice and dispute resolution. Last Fall, Margaret Hagan collaborated with Professor Pina D’Agostino at Osgoode and colleagues at York’s Lassonde School of Engineering to launch a hackathon dedicated to new ideas in Patent Law. A hackathon at Ryerson’s new Legal Innovation Zone turned collaborative law and tech talents to the question of connecting rural and remote communities to the justice system in a “Hackcess to Justice” initiative.

Osgoode’s newest course, Legal Information Technology, exposes students to lawyers working at the forefront of legal tech in contexts of new legal services and new forms of dispute resolution. The course is taught by Monica Goyal, Nicole Aylwin and Darin Thompson, three leading innovators attempting to bring design principles to the integration of technology in access to justice solutions. In these contexts, students are asked not just to explore design ideas and frameworks, but to design their own tech solution to justice problem.

Another ambitious step toward integrating design in legal education is the Justice Design Project (JDP) which has been created (and curated) by the Winkler Institute at Osgoode. The JDP was a week-long workshop for post-secondary students interested in law, design and access to justice held in August 2015. Participants explored the justice system from the “user” perspective and approach access to justice as a hands-on design challenge – they gathered the information needed on how the justice system works, imagined how best to respond to the gaps and weaknesses of the current system, and had to develop a prototype that will improve it. By the end of the JDP, the participating students generated their own response to the challenges of access to justice – including a new app for legal services on-the-go, a new approach to the architecture of courts as “justice centres” with a host of related social services, to a “justice bus” bringing legal services directly to remote communities. As one of the judges evaluating the final “Dragons Den” style pitches, I was impressed with the energy and imagination in the room.

Another perspective from which to consider the design of legal education is whether it conforms with principles of inclusive design, developed in particular to enhance accessibility for people living with cognitive or physical disabilities. The OCAD University Inclusive Design Research Centre has identified three dimensions of inclusive design. The first is recognizing diversity and uniqueness – keeping each individual in mind. Customizing legal education in this way can take many forms. Consider directed research credits, where a single mechanism in the curriculum (there is usually a set process for obtaining these credits and certain standards of research and supervision that must be met) can deliver the subject matter and perspectives students believe will be most enriching and meaningful. The second element of inclusive design involves employing inclusive process and tools. This element is built on the edict “nothing about us without us.” In developing policies on accessibility for students living with disabilities, the students themselves need to play a key role in designing the policy. Finally, it is the responsibility of inclusive designers to take into consideration the context and broader impact of any design and to maximize the beneficial impact. The growing focus on mental health and wellness, for example, though new measures such as JustBalance, may have important and beneficial impacts on the kind of lawyers these law students will be, and how they respond to clients and colleagues with mental health issues and the mental health contexts in the justice system more broadly.

How many Law Schools in Canada can say they meet the standards of inclusive design? Are clinical and experiential opportunities designed with the needs of all students in mind? Are exams designed to position all students to succeed to the best of their abilities? Rather than an infrastructure premised on a single norm and the development of a series of accommodations for those do not fit the norm, are there universal designs to evaluation that Law Schools should adopt? The most provocative and interesting aspect of the design process is asking big questions. For example, in a visual era, why does legal advocacy still revolve around the written text? Are there new roles for documentary film in the legal process? The Gladue Video project – part of a new Fund for Innovation in Law and Media (FILM) will explore whether Gladue reports (presented through a specialized pre-sentencing hearing where offenders are part of Indigenous communities and intended to explore all reasonable alternatives to incarceration) should consist of short films conveying the life of an offender in the context of her or his community, building on the innovations of the Documentary in Law Project at Penn which has turned to film for everything from victim impact statements to Clemency applications.

Design may just be a fad, or it may be the lens through which we will see Law Schools in new and transformative ways, especially how legal education responding to the realities of our students, and the communities and society which our Law Schools serve!


  1. As someone involved in legal education, but largely on the periphery of the law schools looking in, this is of considerable interest.

    I gave a guest lecture last year at the Legal Information Technology course at Osgoode, and the students I encountered were eager, keen and ambitious to explore the future of the law and how technology can impact it.

    Sharing your insights will hopefully allow for greater brainstorming and collaboration across law schools, and beyond. I certainly look forward to the series.