Reinventing Competence

What do lawyers need to be competent for the practice of law today, and even more, for tomorrow?

The critical importance of at least a foundational knowledge of the law, and the ability to conduct appropriate research to find the answers to what one doesn’t yet know, is generally acknowledged. As well, lawyers should be capable advocates, creative problem-solvers and effective counsellors. Also important are communication skills, facility with relevant technologies and business acumen. The list goes on, including both hard and soft skills, developed through law school and articles and then on the job thereafter.

A debate I attended during last fall’s Pitblado Lectures focused on the question of what is most needed to prepare lawyers for the future. Is it well-rounded opportunities in law school, effective articling programs, on the job experience or mentoring? Of course, all of these are important and effective to one degree or another. Or at least they have been effective in the past. Presumably, that’s why these are the tools we’ve been using to train up lawyers for decades (or longer).

Meanwhile, there’s a new law school (or two, depending on what the Supreme Court of Canada has to say about it) on the horizon in Canada. And an expanding pool of bright, capable law graduates who continue to compete for a smaller pool of articling positions and on their call to the bar, compete for an even smaller pool of traditional law firm associate positions.

As is the case in many sectors, the tools that worked in the past are not always useful in the present, whether because they have been supplanted by new tools or because the task for which the tool was required has itself changed, rendering the old tools obsolete or redundant.

Over the holidays, I started reading Gillian Hadfield’s book, Rules for a Flat World: Why Humans Invented Law and How to Reinvent It for a Complex Global Economy. I’m only half-way through (because first I read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy) but already can clearly see how faintly the legal landscape new lawyers are entering resembles that for which we continue to train them.

Hadfield points out how western legal systems developed in another age are becoming obsolete in a world in which borders are more porous, digitization is rampant and economic activity is global. The rapidly changing economic environment creates a need for new kinds of rule-making and new tools to enforce those rules. Traditional legal systems, she argues, are not keeping pace.

Law schools and the legal regulators charged with gatekeeping entry into the profession are likewise falling behind in their efforts to train up legal professionals for the future. I can’t help but think that rather than casebooks and textbooks, students in law might do better to read books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy, or the list recently suggested by Andrew Arruda in his blog post, 10 books that’ll help you keep your 2018 Resolutions.

I don’t have the answer to the question of what lawyers need to be competent for the practice of law in the future. I continue to ponder the question. But I’m confident that it’s nothing like the education or training I received leading up to my Call to the Bar 25 years ago, and that it’s more like what I’ve learned since then working in a variety of non-traditional legal jobs.

This is a conversation we need to keep having in the legal profession, because in this case, in particular, clinging to precedent, as we’ve been trained, is exactly the wrong thing to do.

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