Before Doing Differently, We Have to Teach Differently

During the Toronto launch of Doing Law Differently this past week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Jordan Furlong and some of the NewLaw Pioneers featured in the report. Nate Russell previously summarized the report here.

The report is important because the changes in the legal profession don’t affect anyone more acutely than law students and young lawyers, who will actually live to see the changes sweep across the industry. “This report needs to be read by every student in the country,” said Fred Headen, a past President of the Canadian Bar Association and chair of the CBA Legal Futures Initiative.


Mark Morris of Axess Law, one of the pioneers featured in the report, described how they are already one of the leaders as notaries and conveyancers, and are already breaking into family law. The difference in their approach is they studied best retail practices and developed their law practice around that to handle large volumes. Their innovation was to differentiate by adopting what other industries have already perfected.

Samuel Witherspoon of Mira Law said that “family law has a massive access to justice problem.” They sit in the middle ground between those who can afford legal aid, and the very few who can actually afford a lawyer.

Shelby Austin of Deloitte Canada, another pioneers featured in the report, emphasized that big law firms still offer incredible training that young lawyers shouldn’t forego.

The training they provide though rarely develop the skill sets for the legal alternatives, because the alternatives is not what their business is focused on. These law firms, and the legal system, offers no guarantee of opportunities or employment to the lawyers of the future. D. Casey Flaherty speaks to the future in The End of Lawyers, Period.,

The law does not exist to keep lawyers employed…

We’re trying to introduce something innovative and useful. We’re trying to make things better…

Lawyers don’t warrant special protection from progress.

“It’s The End Of The  World Lawyers As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

Witherspoon, the most recent law graduate of the group present, noted that there were no legal resources focusing on NewLaw at all when he was in law school at the University of Calgary. He recommends Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to learn to program, with free classes from MIT and Stanford.

Some law schools are trying to change that. At a “Technology and Transformation in Law Advisory Group” meeting I was invited to recently, Dean Sossin explored how Osgoode is trying to build courses to run alongside the curriculum to help students explore these emerging opportunities.

James Williams of Google, who teaches a technology course at Osgoode, was not a fan of teaching law students how to code. “I’d rather they learn about the context they are practicing in.”

My proposal to integrate technology and new practices into legal education was to focus on competence, confidentiality, and cost containment.

Lawyers can no longer practice today without some technology, and refusing to adopt these skills is as much a competence issue as substantive law. The confidentiality concerns around using cloud computing and digital data should be addressed without undue paranoia. And finally, if lawyers learn about how technology can cut their operating costs significantly, they can be motivated to adopt technology to turn a greater profit (or sometimes, just break even).

The question is how easy it is to make these changes to an existing law school that has been around for over a century, in a profession steeped in tradition and resistance to change. Bureaucracy and red tape may stifle innovation to the point where a new contender might be more successful.

Mitch Kowalski, also attending the Futures meeting, noted that the University of Calgary is now taking these issues quite seriously in their curriculum development with performance-based learning. But the real upstart might be an entirely brand new law school.

Last December, Ryerson University announced they were considering their own law school. The Ryersonian reported:

“We think Ryerson could provide an innovative approach to law education that is very different from the rest of the system,” said Mohamed Lachemi, Ryerson’s new interim president, in an interview with The Ryersonian on Monday. “We are doing the consultation with the community and of course we have a lot of work to do with the government and the law societies. That feasibility study is starting right now.”

In the open town halls I’ve attended at Ryerson, I’ve heard that the intention would be to create something entirely different, based on the practical skills already taught through the LPP program.

A new law school at Ryerson would look to integrate with its existing incubators and applied learning, and actively recruit from populations who wouldn’t normally attend law school. As a Ryerson graduate and current faculty member, I would agree with Chris Bentley’s comment that the school has a unique approach to education and accomplishing its goals.

Furlong pointed out at the Futures meeting that just last week the Young Bar Association of Montréal observed that the up to 18% of students in Quebec are unable to obtain an articling position. Their reaction was to call for lower admissions to law schools in the province.

But Furlong’s response was that what we need is not less lawyers, but less lawyers of the same kind of what we’ve seen before. “There are more lawyer opportunities, more needs you can fill,” said Furlong. Unfortunately most young lawyers and law students are still largely unaware of what these opportunities might be, which is why the new report focuses on some of the lawyers who are exploring these new grounds.

When Trinity Western University was seeking its law school, I was vocally opposed on the ideological grounds, but also the pragmatic basis that there are better contenders. If we are building new law schools, let’s build the law schools of the future.


The law school of the future probably means a lot less about legal traditions and how law has been done in the past, and a lot more about how it could potentially be. It might mean less of a focus on studying precedent, and more on how to create it, in new and innovative ways.

That’s the type legal education that might even be worth going deep into debt over.



  1. Flaherty’s discussion in that ABA post, “The End of Lawyers, Period”, about the “redeployment” of lawyers to “higher value activities” seems to vibrate with ominous uncertainty.

  2. It’s easy to say that the training provided by Big Law firms does not prepare students and junior lawyers for work in “New Law”. However, at least they are providing training. Most of the “New Law” models I’ve seen don’t involve spending money on training juniors. And of course, it’s their business and they’re entitled to run it as they see fit and given our access to justice problem, anything that results in more efficient legal services and lower prices to consumers of legal services can be seen as a win.

    But if Big Law can’t train lawyers for the future of law, and New Law firms won’t, I guess it will fall to schools to do so.

  3. Matt,

    You’re right, and this is something that has been identified as a problem in the Futures project, and in this report in particular. Large institutional clients don’t want to bear the cost of training students and young associates, and some NewLaw models benefit from that by exclusively utilizing or hiring lateral transfers from Big Law.

    The schools play a role, especially for the reasons you mention here. But it will also fall on the young lawyers to realize that they are entering into an entirely different era of legal practice.

    The choice may be do I get compensated relatively well for now, but gain skill sets that will be obsolete for the rest of my life? Or, do I explore the alternatives, and perhaps gain a competitive advantage in my career against all those who ignored these emerging trends?

    The reality is that when you’re working in a traditional setting you simply do not have the same opportunities to explore the alternatives, or develop the skill sets of the future. There’s a trade-off involved, but not one that every young lawyer is consciously aware that they are making.

  4. Since most of the “New Law” places are hiring people with big firm backgrounds, doesn’t that suggest the big firms are providing good training for “New Law” opportunities? I think the problem with the big firms isn’t the training they provide, but their business models.

  5. Evan,

    Most of them hire these laterals for their substantive background in law. They have to learn the new and innovative practices on the job.

    But that’s not even the point here.

    Those being hired are usually hired by lawyers who have already made the break and had the opportunity to create the alternatives. It’s the creation of those alternatives that law schools should be focusing on, and the development of those skills that all of us will need for the future to survive – literally.

    As I stated above, traditional firm models have no incentive to teach their associates how to develop the alternative to their current employment. There are some innovative practices being experimented with, but they’re still very much tied to existing structures and subsequently constrained as a result.

    None of us actually know where the future is going. It would be nice to explore though.

  6. While both are desirable, there’s a difference between being employed and being employable.

    In the context of early-stage career choices, I think Omar captures the distinction quite nicely in this passage:

    “The choice may be do I get compensated relatively well for now, but gain skill sets that will be obsolete for the rest of my life? Or, do I explore the alternatives, and perhaps gain a competitive advantage in my career against all those who ignored these emerging trends?”

  7. “The choice may be do I get compensated relatively well for now, but gain skill sets that will be obsolete for the rest of my life? Or, do I explore the alternatives, and perhaps gain a competitive advantage in my career against all those who ignored these emerging trends?” Interesting questions, but can anyone identify with certainty which “skill sets” will become obsolete and can’t be adaptable for future use? On the on the other hand, “trends” come and go, so how should legal practice and education be structured to adapt to each new trend? Or, rather should they adapt to trends or should they instead identify and focus on skill sets that are enduring and timeless (if those exist)?

  8. Verna,

    Answering that question is exactly what NewLaw pioneers are exploring. I’ve noted here before some of the skills that Susskind has identified.

    Jordan Furlong has attempted to answer this question in The New World of Legal Work.

    He anticipates greater specialization, both among sole practitioners and high-quality project lawyers who rotate on teams. But he also identifies “hybrid” careers such as “lawyer-knowledge curator, lawyer-analyst, lawyer-technologist, lawyer-educator, serving either fellow lawyers, clients, or the general public.”

    The traditional lawyer as a full-time employee will increasingly become the exception, not the norm.

  9. Omar for some illogical reason your response brings to mind the current conditions in the oil market. A glut in oil equals lower oil prices. I know this has nothing to do with the legal profession because I know that the NewLaw pioneers couldn’t be aiming to ebb the flow of graduates trained as “traditional” lawyers to prevent a glut. A glut which may have the potential of deflating the price of legal services. I’m sure their intentions are very much altruistic and simply in response to the legal market for current graduates. To surmise otherwise would be to provide fodder for conspiracy theorists. But it is interesting to think about…