Legal Education…here’s Hoping the Debate Never Stops

Angela Swan recently wrote a post on “legal education, the alternatives”. Her motivation was a conference at Ryerson on models of legal education, “the how to think” model and the “how to do model”. Angela suggested this was a false dichotomy and I agree completely – I’d be surprised if anyone actually thought either model in its extreme, as presented here, was an appropriate way to train law students. The real issue is how well the two models are integrated and here law schools differ in their programs. The multilayered, multifaceted life (even in my limited experience of it) is much more fun that one that attempts follows a clear path (if there is such a thing). So it is with legal education.

I spent nine years as a prof at one school that prided itself on its “practical” program and six years as dean at another that thought it had invented the “doing” model (sometimes called the trade school model). Even these schools provided opportunities for student to learn legal theory. While it’s true that there have been suggestions that schools should design a program for students who plan to practice (most of them) and another for students who plan to be academics, the better challenge — and the more exciting one for a curriculum geek in my mind is how we deliberately integrate skills and theory (not really dichotomous) into the same course. Of course, some courses will lean towards practice skills and some towards theoretical understanding, and students will tend to cluster their courses around courses that meet their (current) ambitions.

As someone destined for non-practice, and being relatively sure about that from the beginning, I have always been grateful that at Osgoode, with a smorgesbord of courses and (as I recall) no requirements after first year, I did take some “practical” courses, including a clinical program. I’m also glad I articled with a litigation firm (it confirmed for me that practice wasn’t my goal, yes, but it also taught me a great deal that I carried with me into my various legal roles). Granted, learning things like evidence was helpful in my role as a vice-chair of the Ontario Labour Relations Board, a kind of practice in its own way, and filled with former practitioners, but the thinking behind it and other practical skills also helped me as an academic. And it isn’t just skills, it’s a mindset, not always one I like, and the theory helps to identify why I don’t like it, but one that forces me to look at things in a different way, just as the critical theory side does.

Law is one of those disciplines that provides wonderful opportunities for “scholarly” thinking and plays a significant role in a very practical way in people’s lives. In my view, the model of legal education that works best is one that helps future scholars understand the reality of law (not least so that they can critique it more effectively) and future practitioners understand why they are doing law the way they are. And getting that mix “right” isn’t a goal, it’s an educational journey.

Comments are closed.