Baby Lawyers and First Steps

What sort of skills would you like to see besides “traditional lawyer skills” included in new lawyer training? That was the first question asked in the CBA Futures Initiative’s afternoon Twitterchat Wednesday, hosted by Sarah Glassmeyer, Director of Content for CALI, the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction, in Chicago, in a wide-ranging discussion on how, what, and where to train new lawyers.

One of the first responses came from Karen Dyck, a freelance lawyer in Winnipeg and member of the Legal Futures Initiative’s Steering Committee. “Essential is communications, i.e., listening, restating, clear writing and speech, avoiding miscommunications.

“Interesting that you feel these are beyond traditional lawyer skills per Q1,” Lee Akazaki, the former president of the Ontario Bar Association, responded.

“Communications-based errors account for a significant proportion of malpractice claims every year,” Dyck replied.

It should be mentioned that better communications were also an area highlighted by clients in a survey carried out for the Futures Initiative last year, when asked what they want from their lawyers. “I think there needs to be some inclusion of ‘soft skills,’ like the lawyer version of bedside manner,” Glassmeyer mused. “Which makes me think – why don’t we have a term for bedside manner in lawyerdom?”

Anne Galloway, a senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, added, “Best advice I got when I entered academia: ‘we’re all smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind.’”

So. Better communication. What other skills do today’s lawyers need to take with them into the business world? Twitterchat participants suggested project management, data management, leadership, teamwork, basic computer skills, finance basics, database and electronic files, and small business needs. Kim Nayyer, a legal librarian in British Columbia, says some form of experiential learning should be mandatory in law school, to give students hands-on experience with the kind of skills they need.

Also up for discussion during the Twitterchat was the question of where “baby lawyers” should acquire experience in these skills, with differing opinions about the extent to which law students or new lawyers should work directly with clients, particularly those from under-served communities. As pointed out by Ian Holloway, Dean of Calgary Law and lead of the Futures Initiative’s Education Team, the concentration of law schools in limited locations across Canada means we cannot expect law students to meet all access to justice needs. Amy Sakalauskas from Nova Scotia commented that new lawyers are already meeting access to justice needs, but suggested that those new lawyers may not be appropriately equipped.

So if not directly with clients, how else to impart the experience so desperately needed by new calls to the bar? If new pilots use flight simulators to hone their skills, what is preventing the legal profession from creating virtual law practice environments? Lee Akazaki indicated out that articling taught him a lesson that cannot be replicated in a virtual environment: “that lawyers are human – (and) mostly on the good end of the spectrum.”

There was no consensus on where the skills required by new lawyers should be taught, in law school, online, or in some other forum. But no one argued that they wouldn’t be necessary.

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