The latest edition of the CBA National, the magazine of the Canadian Bar Association, had a feature story on a topic that’s started to gain attention recently in Canada.
The legal profession is undergoing an era of profound change, influenced by technology, new business structures, globalization, and the high cost of justice. New skills and tools are needed by graduates in order to succeed. Law grads need to be problem solvers. But are law schools keeping up? Are they reflecting the realities of the legal profession?
On the CBA National article, legal futurist Jordan Furlong says the answer is no. He believes that law schools do not provide a “competitive set of skills and knowledge, tools and experience” for students to draw upon after graduation.” He goes further and states that few law schools would even acknowledge this fact.
As the CBA National article points out, the tension between practical skills training and legal theory has been going on for decades. The legendary Cecil Wright left Osgoode Hall in 1949 because the Law Society of Upper Canada focused on practical skills training. Wright moved across town to the University of Toronto where he created a law school focused on academic legal theory.
It appears to me that we have now come full circle. A legal education based exclusively on theory and legal principles is not enough to adapt to the practice of law in the 21st century. So where do we go from here?
Both the CBA Legal Futures Initiative and the CBA Access to Justice Committee reports in the past few years have called for changes to legal education (note: I was involved with both reports).
The Futures Report points out that:
Learning has become a life-long proposition for lawyers. Expert knowledge, skills and continuing training in the law will result in better services to clients, and maintain lawyers’ competitive advantage in the future, particularly in an environment where clients have greater access to information online and from other sources. This means that the education and training of the next generation of lawyers must be examined from the following perspectives:
a) What will clients need in the future?
b) Who is best situated to provide it?
c) How do we measure success in the education and training of lawyers?
The Futures Report went on to make several recommendations on change to legal education, including:
- An integrated, practical approach, including multidisciplinary skills training, should be incorporated into substantive curricula to provide “translational knowledge” – the ability to turn critical knowledge of legal concepts, regulatory processes, and legal culture into actual problem-solving ability in practice.
- The curriculum for academic legal education should focus on learning outcomes and should be developed in consultation with key stakeholders.
- Where they exist, legal and other constraints should be minimized to broaden the participation of law students in appropriate services in legal educational clinics.
The CBA Equal Justice Report called for more changes in legal education:
- By 2030, three Canadian law schools will establish centres of excellence for access to justice research.
- By 2030, substantial experiential learning experience is a requirement for all law students.
- By 2020, all graduating law students have taken at least one course or volunteer activity that involves experiential learning providing access to justice.
- By 2020, all law schools in Canada have at least one student legal clinic that provides representation to low income persons.
The Federation of Law Societies has now appointed a committee that is looking at the competencies law graduates should have when they graduate. Its recommendations could result in a change to legal education.
What I find fascinating is that there is a lot of talk about legal education by the CBA, the Federation and its constituent law societies, and others, but there is one stakeholder missing from the public discussion: the law schools themselves. A few law schools are making changes to their curriculum.
I think it’s time that law schools took part in a public debate about legal education. Let’s hear from students and recent grads. Let’s hear from law firms of all sizes about what they want in new grads. Let’s get some ideas out there and bat them around. Let’s try out some of those ideas. Let’s look at what our law graduates need now, not at what they needed 20 years ago.
Are law schools ready for a debate? Are they prepared to start one?