Law Schools at the Crossroads

We all remember the three years we spent in law school. If one of your parents attended law school, their experience likely wasn’t very different from yours. It would likely hold true for a grandparent too.

The structure of legal education in Canada has not changed significantly for over 50 years. You attend class for three years, you article for about a year, you write the bar exams, and then you are called to the bar.

Law school courses have not changed much either. The basic courses are the same, with some new courses added from time to time. Teaching methods (with some excellent exceptions) have not seen a major change apart from using PowerPoint for lectures. Many classes are lecture based with students sitting in class taking notes, and writing one or two exams or writing a paper.

Meanwhile, globally the legal profession is undergoing a profound change; some would say a revolutionary change (see Jordan Furlong’s “You Say You Want a Revolution?” and Richard Susskind’s Tomorrow’s Lawyers and The End of Lawyers?). The sad end of Heenan Blaikie is the tip of the iceberg of the changes coming to Canada. Large firms in the US are outsourcing routine work such as document review to contract lawyers, rather than hiring associates.

US law school applications are down 20% from their peak as students there begin to realize that running up a huge debt for an uncertain future may not be a good career move. Even more shocking, those applying to write the LSAT are down 45% from 2009. Law schools in the US are now reducing the size of their classes to adjust.

Articling in Ontario is in crisis, prompting the Law Society of Upper Canada to create the Law Practice Program as an alternative. Despite the articling crisis, Ontario law school admissions have been going up as law schools look for additional revenue. International students, both Canadians educated overseas and immigrant lawyers seeking a new home, have been streaming to Canada (particularly Ontario) seeking to practice here.

Law schools have been challenged by the findings of the 2007 study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, called Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Practice of Law. The Carnegie Report called for an integrated approach to legal education, combining what it called “the three apprenticeships” of theory, practical skills, and ethics into a law degree. Many US law schools have moved in that direction; most Canadian law schools have not, although Lakehead’s new law school has taken the lead in implementing a Carnegie-type curriculum, and Osgoode has taken some steps in that direction.

Being a reformer at heart, I consider this to be the most exciting time in two generations to be involved in legal education. As the legal profession undergoes profound change, law schools must take a hard look at their curriculum and teaching methods to ensure that their graduates are prepared to thrive in the decades to come.

The Canadian Bar Association has recognized the changes coming our way with its Futures Initiative, and in particular with its Legal Education and Training Committee (disclaimer: I am a member of the committee). The CBA will be releasing the committee’s report later in 2014. I hope that it will launch a debate about legal education across the country.

My columns in the coming months will focus on the challenges facing our law schools. I see pressures being brought to bear on law schools from profound changes in the practice of law, from regulators, and from professional organizations such as the CBA. I welcome all comments and constructive criticisms. I will no doubt make some mistakes, and no doubt they will be pointed out to me. But above all I hope we can have a good discussion and come up with some ideas and directions for Canadian legal education.

The current situation reminds me of the maxim “some persons change; others have change thrust upon them.” I hope law schools will change on their own terms rather than have change thrust upon them. The legal profession is entering a paradigm shift, and law schools must change with it.


  1. Sasha Cragg-Gore

    I’m also following this exciting time in Ontario and Canada very closely. Regardless of whether changes comes from internal or external pressures, my biggest concern is the access to justice crisis.

    The many changes in legal education and the legal profession generally are a wonderful opportunity to rethink our legal system and try to make it more accessible because it really is not right now for the majority of middle-class Canadians.

    I’ve highlighted some of the potential changes emanating from LSUC here and how they might impact access to justice going forward.

    I look forward to reading your reflections in this time of great change.