What Makes a Law School Great?

What makes a law school great? What should a law school curriculum seek to accomplish in light of the school’s obligations to its students, its university, the pursuit of knowledge, the profession, and society as a whole? What should a law school strive to be?

Every law school has to answer these questions one way or another, and events of the last few years – the crises of American legal education and Canadian articling, and global and technological shifts in the legal services market – have given them greater urgency.

In this column I want to share my own law school’s recent efforts to answer them, and the significant curricular changes we have adopted in our attempt to bring ourselves closer to our standard for a great law school. This is not to suggest that our perspective and approach are the right ones (although I am in no way going to pretend to be neutral given I was Chair (later Co-Chair with Jennifer Koshan) of the committee leading the process). It is simply to put them out there as one law school’s view on what it should strive to be.

Our answer started at the level of general principles. In particular, we decided that a great law school program must focus on three things: competence, performance, and engagement.

Competence requires knowledge and understanding of the concepts, methods, analysis, reasoning and critical perspectives in and about law. It requires intellectual engagement and rigour, and is directly connected to the scholarly mandate of a University education. Performance requires the ability to translate knowledge into action. It is where intellect meets practice, and learning turns into judgment or – aspirationally – wisdom. Engagement requires intensity and resolution in learning, investing time and effort in preparing for and attending classes, in completing course work and through participating in extra-curricular activities.

Competence and performance are distinct yet connected. Knowing something does not wholly teach you how to use what you know. And using what you know may require abilities – communication, inter-personal skills, practice management – which are distinct from substantive knowledge. At the same time, however, performance is impossible without substantive knowledge. And the ability to use and apply substantive knowledge will deepen it.

Engagement connects to both competence and performance. To put it bluntly, the only way students will achieve competence and performance is through a program which engages them – in which they are motivated to do the work necessary to gain knowledge and to learn how translate that knowledge into action.

From that level of principle we moved to the more specific – and more difficult and contentious question – of how we could change the delivery of our program to better ensure our students are engaged in achieving both competence and performance. After a year and half of work by a Committee made up of a quarter of faculty, and another eight months of working with faculty as a whole and consulting with students, the Law Society of Alberta and the profession, we adopted significant changes to all three years of our curriculum. The new Calgary curriculum contains most of our existing courses, and maintains our strong specialization in natural resources, energy and environmental law. But it gives students more opportunities to develop performance, deepen their competence and to be engaged in their learning.

Performance-Based Learning

Traditional legal education teaches competence well. Most Canadian law school grads, including ours, have knowledge and understanding of the concepts, methods, analysis, reasoning and critical perspectives in and about law. What law schools don’t do particularly well is allow students to deepen competence through performance, or to learn the aspects of performance that are distinct from competence. The new Calgary curriculum aims to deepen competence and enhance performance. Specifically:

  • Core courses in each year will be taught entirely through Performance-Based learning (PBL). Rather than using 100% examinations, students will be evaluated through their ability to use what they’ve learned in more realistic and practical ways. PBL courses will include Legislation, Foundations in Law and Justice 1 and Foundations in Law and Justice 2 (first year), Civil Procedure, Ethical Lawyering and Negotiation (Selected Topics) (second year) and Advocacy (Selected Topics) (third year).

As an example, in Ethical Lawyering students will be evaluated through assignments that may include writing a short policy paper on a regulatory issue (e.g., ABS), drafting a law society complaint against a lawyer, drafting an originating notice to remove a lawyer for a conflict, drafting a statement of claim or defence given an allegation of professional negligence, writing a memorandum of argument in a case of ineffective assistance of counsel or writing a reflective essay on the lawyer’s obligation to pursue (or not) lawful but immoral actions for a client.

Over time the number of PBL courses will be expanded.

  • All first year doctrinal courses, and some upper year courses (in the winter term), will be taught in shorter (10 week) terms with longer class times to allow professors to use innovative and interactive teaching methods.
  • The second year Negotiation and third year Advocacy courses will be expanded to allow students to focus on particular substantive areas of their choice (e.g., Advocacy: Civil Litigation; Advocacy: The Criminal Trial, Negotiation: Contracts; Negotiation: Settling Disputes). The negotiation and advocacy skills currently taught will be linked to exercises in legal analysis, writing and research in the subject area chosen by the student.
  • Optional courses in Legal Practice will be offered. These will include courses such as Law and Technology, Entrepreneurship, Leadership, and Diversity and the Legal Profession.
  • Opportunities for students to participate in legal clinics will continue to be expanded.


In order to foster student engagement – to encourage investment of time and effort in their legal studies – the Calgary curriculum focuses on 1) increasing student choice; 2) introducing more focused and intensive learning (to allow students to deepen their effort in one area rather than skimming the surface of several); and 3) improving scaffolding in the first year program.

  • First year will begin with a three-week introductory course, Foundations in Law and Justice 1. The course will introduce students to the structure of the legal system; reading cases and statutes; legal reasoning, analysis and communication; the role of the lawyer and critical analysis of law. The course will be taught through performance-based learning, with particular emphasis on students practicing and being evaluated on legal reasoning, analysis and communication.
  • In January of first year students will take a second three-week introductory course, Foundations in Law and Justice 2, which will cover legal research, writing and advocacy. Foundations 2 will build on the substantive law they have learned in their doctrinal courses in the first term, and give them the opportunity to deepen that learning through performance.
  • All courses in first year, and selected courses in the upper year, will be taught with varying degrees of intensity, using three week, ten week and 13 week terms, with students taking from 1-5 courses, depending on the term length.
  • Rather than taking an introductory survey course in legal theory in first year, students will be able to choose a theory course in an area of interest to them in 2L and 3L. In addition, rather than taking a required legal research course in the upper years, students will be evaluated on research through the course they choose to take to satisfy the upper year writing requirement. Finally, the Negotiation and Advocacy courses will be in an area chosen by the student, rather than simply being generic.

The Calgary curriculum will remain a work in progress. We know that some changes will in practice work out better or worse than we envisioned them. We also know that the legal services market will continue to evolve, as will the resources and technology available to us as educators. We must continue to break down artificial separation between the academy and practice, where law as a lived enterprise is viewed as irrelevant to academic inquiry, and the academic study of law is viewed as irrelevant to practical problems. Part of our answer to the question of what makes a law school great must, in the end, include a willingness to continue to strive to achieve greatness, and never to assume that we’ve done so.


  1. Fold articling and bar admission courses into law school curricula + add a 4th year to law school for specialization: (1) because the great shortage of jobs compels more new lawyers to become sole practitioners earlier than they should have to, given the present law school course content and purpose; and, (2) because of the need to specialize earlier so as to increase the efficacy of their qualifications earlier; (3) articling jobs are now scarce, and increasing shortages of clients is causing law firms to more frequently and thoroughly use articling law students as a source of cheap labour.
    So the “practice orientation” of law school courses with “teaching the law” should increase as students progress through the 4 years of law school. Therefore, the present 3 years of law school + the approx. 18 months articling and bar ad. courses, could be replaced by a better educated lawyer via 4 years at law school. And cost less in money as well as time.
    The job market goes up and down, so do it to protect law schools and law students from the fickleness and vicissitudes of the lawyer job market and the unexpected difficulties of necessary lawyer development. — Ken Chasse, member LSUC (Ontario); since 1966); and, LSBC (since 1978).

  2. Ken – I don’t see how a fourth year of law school would “cost less in money”. Who would expend less money by going to law school for a fourth year? Already we have many students who choose to study abroad because of the opportunities to gain law degrees in two years elsewhere are too tempting – do we want to drive more students out of the country? At least when a student is articling they are not paying $16,000+ in tuition and start earning again. I would love to hear the cost benefit of a fourth year of school explained. Thank you.

  3. Legal clinics form but a short footnote in your article: “Opportunities for students to participate in legal clinics will continue to be expanded.”

    I think that, in general, student in enrollment in legal clinics should be the rule, not the exception. A law school exists primarily to train new lawyers. There may be argument on this point – going into an academic career, etc. – but the fact is that one cannot become a lawyer without going to law school. I think that, once students learn the “basics” of “the law” in first year, the focus should be on practice-oriented teaching for the remainder of the student’s tenure in law school.

    I’m a graduate of UVic (recently enough that I’m at the tail end of my articles). I spent the last term of my degree working at UVic’s Law Centre, the clinical law program that allows approximately 13-14 students the chance to work full time in a legal clinic acting on behalf of real clients – interviewing, negotiating, going to countless court appearances (including trials), that sort of thing. You’re likely familiar with the Law Centre and that type of setup.

    I can say without hesitation that my time at the Law Centre was the most rewarding and valuable time I spent at law school, both in terms of learning “the law” and learning how to be a lawyer.

    I’m not sure if your law school has the same type of full time, intensive clinic, but in my opinion this should be a core part of every law student’s experience, and one that lasts more than one term. Because of my time at the Law Centre I already felt more prepared for articles than many of my peers. I can only imagine how much better prepared for the “real world” I would have been, had I been able to participate in the Law Centre for, say, a full year.

  4. Jamie, our curriculum changes are in addition to our extensive clinic program. We offer Student Legal Assistance (which does poverty and criminal law), an environmental law clinic, a constitutional law clinic (not every year), the business ventures clinic (through Innovate Calgary) and, next year, an IP clinic (also through Innovate Calgary).

    Clinical education is central to the student experience, and we are looking to expand it, but it’s not a new direction for us (which the curriculum change otherwise is).

  5. Thanks, I wasn’t aware of that.

  6. Jamie’s point on learning the law versus learning how to be a lawyer is a good one.

    He mentions clinics, which is great.

    My law school had great academics, great clinics, but literally zero faculty who had ever practiced law. The practice of law (in exchange for filthy money) was considered the dirty side of the law, compared to their pristine academic pursuits. There wasn’t a single person there who actually knew how to be a lawyer, never mind being capable of teaching it.

    Until third year, mostly taught by downtown sessionals. Whose instruction was much less academic and much more focused on how the legal issues would play out in an actual file.

  7. Hi Mike,

    For what it’s worth the majority of the faculty at the U of C did practice law. I practiced for 7 years.

  8. Striking the appropriate balance across a law school’s obligations to key stakeholders – students, the legal profession, society [and by extension future clients], and the university and pursuit of knowledge – is not a challenge for the faint of heart.

    The Faculty of Law, University of Calgary, is to be commended for this leading edge reworking of its curriculum and pedagogy, including assessment.

    I have written about 21st century law students and 21st century law schools, focusing on the need to train young lawyers to become 21st century lawyers, not 20th century lawyers, or law professors, to prepare young lawyers for the profession of today and tomorrow, not the profession of yesterday.

    The Final Report of the Canadian Bar Association’s Legal Futures Initiative, “Futures: Transforming the Delivery of Legal Services in Canada” spoke to the central role training new lawyers will play in the changing delivery of legal services:

    “As the profession of law continues to evolve with new services, business models, and delivery mechanisms, and as client needs continue to change and grow, one of the biggest challenges will be to determine how to educate and train the next generation of lawyers, as well as those currently in practice.”

    The new direction at the Faculty of Law, University of Calgary, places it at the leading edge in meeting this challenge. Perhaps not surprising, given the role played by its Dean, Ian Holloway, in the work of CBA’s Legal Futures Initiative.

    Intensive core courses, performance oriented courses and assessment, and portfolios, are hallmarks of contemporary pedagogy. They are a marked departure from the Langdellian approach developed in the 1870’s that remains at the core of so much of law school teaching today.

    So to Alice Woolley, Jennifer Koshan and Dean Holloway, great start.

    Paul F. Wood QC

  9. Ivan Mitchell Merrow

    Dear Professor Woolley,

    Focusing on competence, performance, and engagement in law school is a great idea. It sounds like a great foundation for future lawyers.

    As a recent law school graduate, I have a few thoughts:

    1. Posting your committee’s work online for public comment is brave and should be applauded. I’d like to see that level of transparency at more law schools in Canada. What you’ve already accomplished is great; what’s more exciting is to think how this will change and develop over the next few years.

    2. Moving away from exam-based evaluation is a great step. Any evaluation that more closely resembles modern practice would be a better learning opportunity.

    3. From what you’ve written above, it sounds like your student engagement strategy depends on deeper course selection, longer courses, and more intensive practice-based assignments. I’d challenge you and ask how different that really is from the current law school model.

    Are the lectures still didactic (or modified Socratic)? Will students have the chance to discuss ideas, contribute problem-solving methods, or analytical techniques? Or will lectures be a room of 100+ students, learning the same way we did through our undergraduate degrees?

    For inspiration on how law schools could work in the future, we might look to McMaster Medicine’s “problem-based learning (PBL)” approach. Medical students face the same challenge as law students: there is too much information to learn before graduating. McMaster’s approach was to use small-group discussion-based learning to model real life–students have to use available information sources to solve tough problems. Each student would bring insight to class by self-study and share with one’s peers to solve cases in groups.

    This could be distinguished from your performance-based learning approach. I may be wrong, but the focus on performance likely means that students will not be able to share, collaborate or discuss assignments before handing them in. Maybe your approach will be different, but my experience with practical assignments (no matter how challenging) is that the benefit is lost if there is no group learning component.

    For more information on McMaster’s PBL, see

    4. Why not have an optional (or mandatory) lecture series that combines topics like Law and Technology, Entrepreneurship, Leadership, and Diversity and the Legal Profession? Although each one could be a standalone course, that means students won’t be able to take them all. “Law practice essentials” on Tuesday nights could be a great course for students. You could even evaluate them by asking to finish the course by writing a business plan for their future law practice.

    Thank you for sharing your committee’s progress. If you’d like to discuss anything further, feel free to reach out at

    Best regards,

  10. Thanks Alice. It sounds like Calgary is doing all the right things.