When Trinity Western University first suggested it should have a law school, I emphasized here all the market reasons they should not; there are enough law schools already, not enough articling positions, and too much job competition for junior lawyers.
What it was ultimately about though is that we don’t need a new law school, doing everything the old way of doing things, and adding exclusionary criteria that runs contrary to human rights principles.
Since then, we’ve had new law schools at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, and Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia. The former has gained some notoriety by including clinical experiences into the program already to meet all articling requirements before graduation, and the latter has also attempted to focus on new and innovative legal practices.
But what if we could build a law school that looks nothing like legal education of the past?
This week, Ryerson University released a Letter of Intent to develop a proposal for a new juris doctor (JD) program. Without even reading the letter, the proposal is already receiving pushback from the profession.
Except it’s not the profession that Ryerson is catering to. The Letter proposes a curriculum like nothing legal education in Canada has seen before, but also explicitly sets out to address all the existing problems in the legal industry. And I just might think they can pull it off.
Granted, I am biased. I am a graduate of Ryerson University, where I did my second degree prior to law school. I still say that my Ryerson education was the best degree I ever completed, better than my first degree in nuclear medicine, better than my masters in law, and yes, even better than law school.
What made it different? The educational approach, the collegial learning environment, and the contemporary focus of the content. The education was heavily based in theory, but deeply and ultimately practical, providing skills, insights, and tools that were easily applied to the workplace. In other words, it was education that was useful.
I also happen to share a bias in that I have taught at Ryerson for several years. I can compare what we do there to other schools I teach or lecture at in the GTA, and also can see how the school is growing and developing. Our law classes actually provide skills that are useful in the business world, rather than help hone the ability to brief cases.
Since then, I’ve observed Ryerson win a competitive bid to provide the Law Practice Program (LPP). Although the initial LPP pilot is coming to a close, there’s broad consensus that the instructional tools used in it are unsurpassed in the legal industry today. It’s the mentorship, and the technology, that makes all the difference.
We’ve also seen the introduction of the Legal Innovation Zone (LIZ), based on Canada’s #1 university-based incubator (surprise, it’s the DMZ at Ryerson), where a small and energetic community of entrepreneurs experiment with private sector solutions to problems in the legal system. The LIZ has even served as a central hub of expertise and a think tank, bringing in experts, practitioners, and the public to produce a 20-page report on Family Law Reform. The largest law schools in Canada, any of the family law firms in the country, or even the government itself, could not have mobilized and executed what I observed in this consultation.
This year I’ve been teaching in the Ryerson Law & Business Clinic. We team up with several firms in Toronto to provide free legal services to small businesses connected to the Ryerson community. Business students do the bulk of the work, under lawyer supervision. The students not only learn the basics of business documents and contracts, but they learn the strategy behind why these tools are important. To my knowledge, there is no program like it anywhere in Canada.
Ryerson is already a pioneer in law, even without a law school.
It’s where Ryerson is located, and who it comprises of, that also makes it different. A truly downtown campus, completely integrated with the city life, the university and its student body actually looks like our population (the faculty is a different issue, but one that would only be challenged so strongly at Ryerson). We are not going to change who our profession is comprised of, who the managing partners are at firms, or the people we appoint to the bench, unless we have different types of students in law schools than we have in the past.
I’ve often said that we let the wrong people in to law school. If you’ve been isolated your entire life from the rich fabric of the Canadian population, attending prestigious private schools, and maintained a tight and homogeneous social network throughout university, you ultimately have no idea how to understand or advocate on behalf of minorities and historically marginalized populations. Even if you work in a transactional practice, it makes you a horrible person to work with, the type of co-worker who makes racially or culturally inappropriate jokes, and then expects everyone to laugh.
Unfortunately there’s no screen for being a douche on a law school application. What we can do though is create a law school environment that looks like the Canadian population, and actually exemplify the culture of inclusion that we’d like to see in society at large.
The implications for this go beyond just the bar. I commented on this recently in the Law Times:
Omar Ha-Redeye, founder and chair of the Lawyers for Representative Diversity is leading discussions with the government on the issue.
“Governments come and go, but diversity in Canada is a permanent issue. Diversity itself is an issue of skill and merit. If there is little understanding of the social context of the law, you will not be a very good judge, he says.
Ha-Redeye is calling for every new judge from 2016 to have had some type of experience or contact with racialized groups. “It is no longer optional. You can do additional training for existing judges, but every new judge must have it.” he says.
Rather than wait for the time for appointment, these skills schools be built into the law school curriculum. Speak to any racialized law student in any law school in Canada, and they’ll tell you that it is not (and some are worse than others).
The new guidelines for Superior Court judicial appointments released this week highlight the need for Judicial Advisory Committees (JACs) to be more representative of Canada, and to receive training on diversity, unconscious bias, and assessment of merit, criteria which could also be applied to those aspiring to enter the profession. The Letter of Intent states,
We believe that a well-qualified group of applicants exists, that is simply unable to access legal education. As one of the practitioners (sic) at our consultation sessions put it, “Everything begins with admissions. Admit students who are more diverse and change the admissions process.”
As a result of my involvement at Ryerson, I had the opportunity to contribute to the “Originating Committee” leading up to this Letter of Intent. The Letter reflects many of the ideas that we have been saying legal education should be about, but doesn’t necessarily address all of the concerns the profession may have, for example, the shortage of articling positions and jobs for young lawyers.
The significant emphasis on technology in the Ryerson program is intended to highlight how many of the Ryerson law graduates would have no interest in pursuing traditional forms of legal practice at all. A Ryerson law student would be learning about the law of today and the day after, not of 100 years ago.
Lord Denning is more amusing to the law professors than he is to students, and less instructional of legal concepts for how they should be used in the modern era. How the law should be used, and why, is the type of paradigm that takes this profession light years ahead. The traditional problems for traditional law school graduates simply wouldn’t exist in the same way.
For example, Ryerson law school graduates would be creating jobs for the graduates of other law schools. Take a stroll down LIZ for an idea as to how.
Ryerson law graduates will be more financially self-sustainable than a graduate of another school, receiving financial literacy and social innovation training. And of course there would be mandatory instruction on Indigenous Law. The Ryerson approach is practical, effective, while still being socially conscious – and they would do it for less (and better) than some of the other schools.
It’s been 14 years since Ryerson has shed its “polytechnic” title, a history that still affects the way some perceive the institution. The school’s history, and its scrappy and aggressive development, has positioned itself to be a leader in technological solutions and inclusive environments, two of the most pressing concerns facing the legal industry. A Ryerson law school is a school seeks to address our problems, not accentuate or make them worse.
To me, it seems like the legal industry needs Ryerson and graduates from its law school, more than the other way around. Those who resist it will likely do so without knowing what Ryerson is capable of, or what it has already accomplished in a very short period of time.
A full proposal will be made to the Ryerson Senate and Board of Governors soon, with Senate approval expected by May 2017. The first intake of students could start as early as September 2018.