Column

Would a Ryerson Law School Need a Law Library?

It’s been a while since we’ve heard anything about Ryerson University’s plan to open a law school. Both the Letter of Intent and the whitepaper (Training Tomorrow’s Legal Professionals) prepared to document the proposal have been taken down from the web, so it’s difficult to check the details. The proposed new law school would purportedly be radically different from the other “traditional” law schools in English Canada. Its innovative and transformative curriculum would address changes in the profession by focussing on innovation in legal education and offering more opportunities for experiential learning geared towards “new competencies” such as entrepreneurial spirit, financial literacy and technological proficiency.

As I recall, the Letter of Intent dodged the issue of whether there are already too many law schools (and too many lawyers) in Ontario. Whichever side of that question you stand on, I think most agree that the status quo is not sustainable and that change in legal education and the practice of law is necessary and even inevitable. Whether the Ryerson proposal addresses these challenges and would make a credible contribution to advancing change, it might be safest to paraphrase Prime Minister McKenzie King’s famous argument in the conscription debate: “Ryerson if necessary, but not necessarily Ryerson”.

Being not only a law librarian but a law school librarian, I can’t help but ask myself, in a guardedly conditional mood, if the Ryerson proposal for a “different” law school with an innovative, experiential legal education program were allowed to proceed, would that law school need a law library? I believe the no-longer-available letter of intent mentioned a law librarian, but no mention was made of a law library. Though already a large university with an increasing enrolment (43,000 students and growing) and expanding curriculum (100+ undergraduate and graduate programs), Ryerson University still has only one central library and no specialist branch libraries. Though not renowned for its collection, the library provides outstanding services focussed on students and a compelling learning experience. Still, I wonder if the proposed Ryerson law school has need for, or if the existing Ryerson University library policy has room for a law library.

In the United States, the American Bar Association has adopted relatively detailed Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools, with an entire chapter dedicated to “Library and Information Resources” which addresses such specifics as budget, administration, the director’s qualifications, staffing, services and collection. In Canada, the only requirement for a law school’s library is contained in a single sentence, literally the last item in the Federation of Law Societies’ National Requirement (2011) on competencies for entry to a bar admission program. The requirement is specifies only that an approved law school must maintain “a law library in electronic and/or paper form that provides services and collections sufficient in quality and quantity to permit the law school to foster and attain its teaching, learning and research objectives.” (National Requirement, section 2 “Learning Resources”, item 2.4). The requirement is as vague as the Ryerson proposal.

The answer to whether a Ryerson law school would need a law library rests with several considerations:

1. What would a Ryerson law curriculum, based on experiential learning, look like? What would its “teaching, learning and research objectives” be?

The answer depends first on what an “experiential” law curriculum would look like. The Letter of Intent was short on details. Law is a profession, but the “traditional” law school curriculum has become increasingly “academic” over the past 30 years, with less connection to training for the profession it’s intended to serve. If “experiential” means a greater emphasis on practical legal knowledge and skills with the objective of preparing students for professional practice, perhaps an academic research collection and the library to hold it would not be needed. In fact, perhaps a library “in electronic form” (as is increasingly the case in law firms) would suffice and indeed more instructive.

2. In an innovative law curriculum based on experiential learning, how would legal research be taught and who would teach it?

As the study of law has become more academic and less practical, our law school legal research programs have focussed more on skills for academic research than on resolving legal problems. Likewise the “written component” required for most upper-level law courses emphasizes academic writing as for publication in a law review, not the clear, concise professional writing addressed to a colleague or client. Would legal writing and legal research be taught by law librarians (who, at Canadian universities, are themselves faculty with little or no experience of legal practice), or would the responsibility be given to adjunct faculty from the practising bar, with hands-on experience of research in practice? Or, in an experiential curriculum, would research and writing skills be integrated into each aspect of the program rather than taught as a standalone course?

3. What would the Ryerson law faculty look like? Teaching in an experiential program, training tomorrow’s lawyers for a changed legal profession, would they be traditional academics, expected to “publish or perish”? Would the school offer a graduate program?

As a university, Ryerson’s emphasis has always been on both research and innovation. This emphasis, and the fact that it is already home to the Legal Innovation Zone (LIZ), makes Ryerson a likely and appropriate home to a non-traditional law school training legal professionals for the new economy, with new competencies focussed on technology, client service, and perhaps even access to justice. But what kind of teaching faculty would such a new school need? Graduates from our “traditional” law school graduate programs are academically trained with a focus on scholarly research and publication. Would they look for a library to support their scholarly research activities? Could the Ryerson library, with its focus on undergraduate needs, support these activities? Would Ryerson need to develop a library collection to support scholarly research? Or – as is uniquely possible at Ryerson – could faculty be expected to go to the University of Toronto’s world-class library, just short subway ride or brisk walk away?

4. Would potential Ryerson faculty and students expect their school to have a law library? What kind of library facilities and resources would they anticipate finding in their law school?

“Traditional” law has always been more than just a profession: it’s a calling, a vocation, and its initiates hold themselves to occupy a special, privileged place both in society and in the state. Law schools have always instilled in their students a sense of privilege and expectations of entitlement. A law school’s perceived need for a law school library is to some extent a reflection of this privilege, concomitant with the law school’s special status in the university and in society. In Canada, where our universities and are increasingly underfunded and underresourced, our law schools still view having their own library as others might view having a pool in the backyard, a requisite and perquisite of their special status. Would a law library or the promise of a law library be part of Ryerson’s view of itself as a non-traditional law school or as a prerequisite to recruiting staff and students to a Ryerson law school?

Conclusions

Would a Ryerson law school need a library? In answer, I would again paraphrase Prime Minister King: “A library if necessary, but not necessarily a library.” The students will certainly need a place to study, especially group study spaces for collaborative work. Faculty (and possibly students) will need access to a research-quality library collection, but that doesn’t need to be in the law school. History, business and English faculty do just fine with their research collections in the central library; and in an academic environment where scholarship and research are increasingly interdisciplinary, this may be the more appropriate place for it. No law school needs thousands of linear feet of primary legal resources (law reports, statutes, etc) or journals in print anymore: these and the necessary related finding tools (The Canadian Abridgment, The Canadian Encyclopedic Digest, Halsbury’s Law of Canada, case and statute citators, etc) are all available online, which is also how they’re accessed in practice. Someone will need to teach legal writing and research (LRW); but what that LRW curriculum would look like, how it would be taught and by whom in an experientially-based law program focussing on practice skills hasn’t yet been determined. The eventual impact of artificial intelligence on legal research and legal practice must be considered. The school may need a “reserve” collection for essential texts not available online, but whether even that collection need be ready-to-hand is a consideration. Perhaps one of the innovations we might anticipate from a Ryerson law school is the development of open-access textbooks and course packs which might reduce dependency on a traditional reserve collection.

As Ryerson develops its plans for a new kind of law school and how to teach law and legal skills for a changed and changing legal profession, I hope they will also seriously consider the role of legal information and information technologies in the new legal services environment. Legal information, access to legal information, and the importance of finding and analyzing legal information as part of legal method have never been more important. A new law school committed to new ways of teaching law is a unique opportunity to evaluate the concepts of “library”, “information” and “technology” within legal education. I hope Ryerson will seriously consider the nature and role of a law library – and law librarians – in this brave new legal world.

Comments

  1. Ryerson’s proximity to the Great Library at (the original) Osgoode Hall should be considered. It would be an unfortunate waste of resources to invest in a physical catalogue that accumulates dust in the shadow of the Great Library’s collection.

    Also, most law firms do not have a physical library of any significance.

Leave a Reply

(Your email address will not be published or distributed)