It is possible that traditional law schools will reinvent themselves structurally from the ground up and become exemplars of innovative 21st-century lawyer formation. It is also possible that I will play Polonius, the irritating giver of unwanted advice, in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s next production of Hamlet. Both these scenarios would be welcome (especially Act III, scene iv, when the advice-giver behind the curtain finally gets what’s coming to him).
More likely, however, the reinvention of lawyer formation will begin outside of our legacy law campuses. Ryerson University’s new law school is a very promising entrant in this burgeoning race.
But frankly, I don’t see that the initial stage of lawyer formation needs to be affiliated with a university or academic institution at all. If a law society is satisfied that an entity has properly grounded its graduates in the foundational knowledge of the law and the essential features of the legal profession, then it should certify those graduates, regardless of whether the entity also has a nice coat of arms and a football team.
In that spirit, then, here are three very different visions for law school s— new ways of conceiving what “legal education” could and should now be expected to accomplish.
1. The Practitioner’s Law School
“We’re going to teach you how to think like a lawyer,” they told me on my first day of law school in 1990. You know how long it took me to start thinking like a lawyer? About six weeks. It probably took you less time than that. Then we both spent the next three years continuing to think like a lawyer, every day, in various areas of law.
“Thinking like a lawyer” is not that hard. Knowing who a lawyer is, what a lawyer is for, what a lawyer is supposed to do and say, how a lawyer is supposed to act and why — that’s hard, and law school is mostly silent on the issue. It is equally silent on “thinking like a client,” which some lawyers can apparently get through their whole careers without getting the hang of.
But what if a law school singularly devoted itself to developing law practitioners who knew the answer to all these questions? Yes, a number of law graduates never go into the business of advising clients, but there are plenty of law schools already available for them. This one would be for people who want to advise clients, solve their problems, and facilitate their opportunities, full stop.
First-term courses would ground you in legal reasoning, statutory and caselaw analysis, judicial inquiry, legal ethics and professional responsibility, the history of the profession, legal philosophy and the rule of law — “thinking (and acting) like a lawyer.” The second term would establish the basics of criminal, civil, constitutional, property, and liability law. (Does that seem like a lot? Check out what engineering students do in their first year.)
From that point onwards, the school would teach the skills of a competent practicing lawyer. A short list of these skills would include listening, empathy, judgment, research, writing, negotiating, persuading, managing time, managing people, managing projects, financial literacy, computer basics (Word/Excel), and customer service. Specialized substantive-law streams would also be available — three or four courses in how to be a defence lawyer, how to be a corporate securities lawyer, etc.
Essentially, this school would teach to the practice competencies of a modern lawyer. These competencies are helpfully identified in the 2012 National Entry to Practice Competency Profile for Lawyers and Quebec Notaries, produced by the Federation of Law Societies. They are also exemplified in outstanding fashion by the Practice Readiness Education Program (PREP) from the Canadian Center for Professional Legal Education, now used by the law societies of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia to provide pre-admission lawyer training.
Would the school described above actually be owned and operated by a law society? Maybe it would.
2. The Corporate Counsel Law School
Similar to #1 above, but with two differences. The first, perhaps obviously, is that the “practitioner” course mix would be geared towards single-client lawyers in corporations and government. The competencies here could be assembled with some help from the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) and its “12 Core Competencies Reference Model,” which includes data analytics, information governance, strategic planning, and organizational design, as well as leadership, management, and understanding risk.
The second and bigger difference is that this “school” would be owned by a consortium of corporations. Admission would be carefully curated, not just to look for people with the right talent and temperament, but also to ensure that the school’s graduates embody the diversity that law departments demand but fail to receive from law firms. Graduates could be offered positions within the law departments of the consortium’s owners, perhaps as part of a tuition discount arrangement or loan deferment plan as long as the graduate works there.
Traditional law schools are built on the assumption that the first and last place their graduates will go to work is in law firms or in sole practice (well, except for those utterly brilliant graduates who’ll become professors someday). They give almost no time or thought to graduates who will work for companies or governments. Rather than trying to add these sorts of features to a traditional law school, you could create a school exclusively for these institutional-client lawyers.
3. The People’s Law School
What if you created a law school not to develop lawyers at all, but to teach everyday people legal awareness, the basics of their legal rights and responsibilities, and the remedies that are available to them? You’d be graduating “citizen lawyers,” if you will, people who can then help their families, communities, and organizations to understand and resolve their legal issues and conflicts. That’s what a “people’s law school” would do.
Richard and Daniel Susskind make several excellent points in The Future of the Professions, primarily that professional expertise will become “democratized” in future and that the institutional barriers that keep this expertise out of people’s hands will fall away. I think that if you wanted to accelerate that development — perhaps if you were, say, a large non-profit foundation that wanted to improve access to justice — then this is exactly the kind of entity you’d want to create.
These are three ways in which the whole concept of “law school” could be configured away from the 19th- and 20th-century legacy institutions with which we’re all familiar, and toward a 21st-century ethic of collaboration, specialization, and client empowerment. Which, if any, do you like best? And if none of them, what would you advocate creating instead?