Let the Students Lead Us

I’ve been teaching at University of Ottawa Law School’s compressed January term, which means a 3 hour class every day. It’s given me a sneak peek at the future lawyers of this country – and I like what I see.

If my class is indicative of the rest of the second and third year law students in Canada, they are bright, eager – and anxious.

Bright and eager is to be expected given that they’re beginning a new challenging career – the anxiety however is troubling.

There is concern over articling positions for those staying in Ontario – no surprise there. Their anxiety also stems from a perception that benchers in Ontario don’t get it; that they’re too far removed from being a student to comprehend in any meaningful way the full impact of this crisis.

But most of all, students feel that their views remain unheard and when they are heard, deemed to be irrelevant – a frustrating, powerless feeling which is magnified by the fact that the articling crisis impacts only students and no one else in the profession.

But this sense of being powerless does not stop at the articling debate.

We’ve been discussing a number of ways in which legal services are, will and can be delivered for the benefit of clients and for lawyers – in order to create a win/win, instead of a win/lose. Students are very excited about these innovations. They can see how social justice, access to justice, work-life balance and other goals can be achieved by simply rethinking how things are currently done using readily available technology and processes. They see a bright light at the end of a legal system tunnel that seems to be leaving more and more people behind.

Yet many students worry that their ideas to make our profession better and more accessible to all Canadians will be callously pushed aside by older generations of lawyers who, as McLuhan said “see the present through a rear view mirror.” Perhaps if I were to dig deeper, I might find a deeper fear; a fear that “we’ll turn out just like them in a few years.”

So my hope for law students is that you won’t lose your idealism or your desire to fix a delivery system that no longer addresses the needs of Canadian clients or lawyers.

And for those of you in the profession – please listen. These students are proud to become lawyers. They enjoy law, they want to safeguard a strong and independent profession – they just think it can be done in a better, more modern way….and they’re right. They can save the profession, but only if we let them.

In the immortal words of that great philosopher of the 1970’s, D. Bowie:

“And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through”


  1. Meh…

    I don’t think that access to justice issues are going to be solved anytime soon in Canada. In fact, I don’t think that the anxiety of students is demonstrative of much either. Students were anxious in my day a decade ago before the articling crisis.

    I appreciate your hope, but I do not share it. Best bet for the average Canadian is try your darnedest to avoid having to need to hire lawyers in your personal life. Business of course, is different. Mark Twain said it best:

    “Going to law is losing a cow for the sake of a cat.”

    Except now the cow is a herd and the cat is dead.

  2. Karen Dunn Skinner

    Mitch, we also sensed their excitement at getting out into the profession and their hope that they’d be able to effect some change.

    I have to disagree with The Wet One – what they expressed to us after our guest lecture on Tuesday was not pre-articles anxiety, it was a feeling of hopelessness. They wanted to believe they could have an impact on the future of law, but they couldn’t see far enough ahead to the day when they’d be in a position to do it.

    They’re right – in the short term they can’t make much of a change to the profession as a whole. What they can do (and hopefully will do) is take some of what they’ve learned and make small changes in the way they work – putting an emphasis on giving value, accepting the billable hour (for now) without becoming seduced by it – so that once they’ve come out on the other side of their articles and gained enough experience, they can start rethinking today’s model and creating the type of firm that delivers legal services the way clients want.

    The cat’s not dead.


  3. I echo the impressions which both Mitch and Karen have expressed above. Following our guest lecture on Tuesday night, one of Mitch’s students tweeted that the class had “gotten [her] really excited about the future of law!” The written evaluations we received were full of similar sentiments. Yes, there was a sense of helplessness, powerlessness and frustration, but there was also a sense of wonder at and appreciation for the potential to transform the practice of law. In time, these students will become leaders in law by bringing to bear their own ideas on ways to innovate. Good luck. “Climb high, climb far. Your goal the sky, your aim the star.” — Mark Hopkins

  4. Will it be the students or the market place that will be the catalyst for change? That is, will it be the demands of the clients that will force firms to change the way legal services are provided? Because right now there seems to be an assumption that change will come about because future lawyers will say: well, we’ve got this new technology and processes and this is how we should and will do things from now on. Which seems very arrogant. Or, is it in actuality that change will come about in response to what the clients want and what they demand. In other words, the catalyst is from without not within. Should it then be “let the clients lead us”? And, the students be prepared with the necessary skills to meet what ever demands the market dictates.

  5. Verna – I agree entirely that change will be driven in significant part by clients, whose expectations mirror the realities of the business environment in which they operate. Their own clients demand excellent service and will usually only pay for value-adding work. Why, then, do we, as lawyers, expect our clients to be any different?

    The profession is under pressure. The dramatic increase in competition from new legal service providers offering credible and cost-effective alternatives to traditional “BigLaw” has resulted in a major shift in the bargaining power and clout of clients. Increasingly, they will only pay for value adding services. And they demand alternatives to the billable hour, since the “longer I take, the more I make” paradigm is anathema to efficiency. What drives clients is their bottom line.

    All that said, we see some hope in the students we have been talking to. They are genuinely interested in the future of law, are concerned about the current crises gripping the profession, and want to explore the ways innovation and a more business-oriented perspective might help bring about positive change. That, I suggest, is a good thing. They’ll be better able to imagine and shape new models that are more responsive to the changes in client demands.

  6. Having had the pleasure of presenting LPM principles to students in a couple of different law programs, including one of Mitch’s classes at the University of Western Ontario, I too have seen firsthand the optimism, idealism and anxiety described by Mitch, Karen and David.

    Unlike The Wet One I don’t think change will be long and slow in the coming. Between technological advances as well as changing client needs and expectations there is a perfect storm for change that is long overdue. Lawyers who refuse to acknowledge this reality and adapt based on their misguided belief that everything they do is special and unique (come on, really? Everything?) will soon enough find their volume, productivity and profitability dropping while more and more flexible, tech savvy and client oriented students and lawyers take advantage and step in to offer viable alternatives.

    Cats have 9 lives. Particularly in firm settings those who adapt to be more herd/team and client oriented will thrive.

  7. Slaw sure does a great job of giving students a voice when they delete mine and another student’s comments from a previous article about articling.

    I’m a 3L.

    I feel utter hopelessness, to the point that while I enjoy clinic work, I 100% regret going into law. I’ve had to go into therapy for feeling suicidal, because, after all, $100,000 and three years for a useless piece of paper is a bit of a bad deal. Can’t even declare bankruptcy, and the bank sure ain’t going to wait for me to get a job before they start demanding repayment.

    Went to an expensive downtown U of T law school with a good reputation for getting students into high-paying jobs. Now I’m stuck cold-calling random lawyers in minor Canadian cities because the school provides no help whatsoever for finding articles beyond resume proofreading.

    Spend $100,000 to get a JD, and what do I see? Highly profitable firms offering $1000 a month for 80 hours of work a week. Firms asking to be paid to take on students. “Volunteer” articles. Working for free won’t pay the bills, nor will working for $2.50 an hour.

    I get the genuine sense that most people in the profession don’t know the impossibility of finding articles. Lawyers take it for granted that I got a 2L summer job (nope! Not after 150 applications), or that I got articles in the summer before 3L (nope! Not after 200 applications). Naturally now I get called lazy by people whose parents are partners at large Bay Street firms because I’m not willing to pay half a grand to rent a car and drive 8 hours out of town to maybe speak with the one sole practitioner in Stickville, Ontario, who may or may not have any money to take on a student.

  8. Actually, I agree that the cat is not dead. Clients will still have their issues. That said, the cow or the herd is, in my view, very much alive.

    I’m glad that you folks who continue to practice are hopeful. Perhaps someday your views of things will be reflected in the fact of the Chief of the SCC and other sundry justices not railing on about the underserved people of Canada who appear in their courtrooms without legal counsel. Until that day, I’ll continue to be sceptical of much improvement.

    As for the poor articling students, the economy will turn around. Also, if you think this is bad, wait until you’re actually a lawyer and you’re always under pressure to deliver 110% 365/24/7. That’s real pressure. You might find, as I did, that for your own well being it’s best that you move on from the practice of law. It isn’t for everyone (not even for a significant fraction of practicing lawyers, but they tell themselves otherwise). The money’s great, but it comes at a price.

    The education on the other hand, I think, is invaluable even if you don’t practice. Granted, you’ll get more out of the education if you do practice, but it’s worthwhile for its own merit. Knowing something of the law and thereby the political system in which you live (and I don’t mean that bastion of nuttery known as Parliament or the Legislatures) is very valuable, both personally and economically. It won’t be obvious what you can do remuneration wise with a law degree, but it’s valuable all the same. If nothing else, you get to be a member of a hated, feared and envied class of folks who have a measure of power that other citizens don’t have. Power by virtue of your knowledge.

    Hope you get past your funk Law Student. Life’s filled with them, and like all things, these too, pass. Mine lasted almost 20 years, but now I’m free of it.


  9. @ The Wet One

    Regarding your statement to “poor articling students”:

    How do you know the “economy will turn around”? Might this be a 20 year stagnation like Japan has been experiencing? Even if we do move out a recession, do you really think that the legal hiring market will return to the good ol’ days of the 1990s and early-mid 2000s?