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What Should Post-Pandemic Legal Education Look Like?

Surfing through the blog entries from my Decanal colleagues over the last number of months, it is clear that coping with the pandemic and adapting legal education to remote delivery has loomed large for all of us. We know it has affected our students, our colleagues and our staff and it is tempting to wish for a return to “normal” as we understood it pre-pandemic. On the other hand, there is emerging a debate about what the post-pandemic university should look like, with early commentators suggesting that there is now ‘a unique opportunity to reimagine our universities as more inclusive, more flexible and ultimately more intellectually productive learning commons’ (Costopoulus, July 5, 2021). [1] The recommendations include that teaching become more flexible and more focused on what inspires students to learn, which could include retaining a significant element of online delivery. Significantly, they also include breaking down barriers to access so that all have opportunities to innovate (Goel, July 2, 2021).[2]

More specifically then, what should post-pandemic legal education look like? There is lots of scope for different perspectives on this question. One preliminary framing thought is that it may be useful to distinguish issues of content from questions about optimal methods of delivery. The immediate needs of the pandemic caused us to focus on methods of delivery, where it quickly became clear that while one could continue to use the lecture format in Zoom as opposed to in-person, there is also an opportunity to rethink course design in a remote environment. We have all become familiar with the dichotomy between synchronous and asynchronous approaches to the delivery of material. Both synchronous and asynchronous methods allow for experimentation-to varying degrees – with “bite size” lectures, the use of video material as well as more creative strategies to test comprehension of material. They also allow for greater collaborative sharing of material and perspectives across colleagues and law schools, a project that I understand has already started in some areas of the first-year law curriculum, such as contracts and perhaps civil procedure.

At some point, a full assessment of whether these online strategies work well for the delivery of legal content specifically, as well as for developing the necessary skills of critically analyzing law and legal institutions, will be illuminating. As noted above, a component of such an assessment could be to ask whether course design (online or in person) promotes interactivity and active learning, as opposed to producing the alienation and frustration experienced by many students during the pandemic. We also cannot ignore important questions of accessibility when considering the post-pandemic law school curriculum, and the ways in which judicious use of online learning may facilitate this.

Yet embracing the online environment will still require us to confront challenging questions about what the “core” content of a legal education should include, in a context in which there are even more ways of “being a lawyer” now than there were when the curricula of most of our law schools were established. Certainly, an increased facility for learning online may connect well to the project of “lifetime learning” which would recognize that legal knowledge as well as analytical and advocacy skills must be constantly honed over the course of a career. But if the pandemic has taught us anything it is that the next generation of lawyers will need to know something about productive responses to crises, whether those are public health or climate-related or something else entirely, as well as how to advise others to react productively as well. Understanding more about the way law generates, frames and facilitates (or not) solutions to crises will be in the toolkit of the well-educated law graduate.

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[1] Andre Costopoulos, “Why we must, and how we can, make the post-pandemic university a more intellectually productive learning commons”, online: University Affairs <https://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/in-my-opinion/why-we-must-and-how-we-can-make-the-post-pandemic-university-a-more-intellectually-productive-learning-commons/>.

[2] Vivek Goel, “Universities have a once-in-a-century chance to reset. What should they look like post-COVID?”, online: The Globe and Mail <https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-universities-have-a-once-in-a-century-chance-to-reset-what-should-they/>.

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