Does Law School Reflect the Realities of the Legal Profession?

The latest edition of the CBA National, the magazine of the Canadian Bar Association, had a feature story on a topic that’s started to gain attention recently in Canada.

The legal profession is undergoing an era of profound change, influenced by technology, new business structures, globalization, and the high cost of justice. New skills and tools are needed by graduates in order to succeed. Law grads need to be problem solvers. But are law schools keeping up? Are they reflecting the realities of the legal profession?

On the CBA National article, legal futurist Jordan Furlong says the answer is no. He believes that law schools do not provide a “competitive set of skills and knowledge, tools and experience” for students to draw upon after graduation.” He goes further and states that few law schools would even acknowledge this fact.

As the CBA National article points out, the tension between practical skills training and legal theory has been going on for decades. The legendary Cecil Wright left Osgoode Hall in 1949 because the Law Society of Upper Canada focused on practical skills training. Wright moved across town to the University of Toronto where he created a law school focused on academic legal theory.

It appears to me that we have now come full circle. A legal education based exclusively on theory and legal principles is not enough to adapt to the practice of law in the 21st century. So where do we go from here?

Both the CBA Legal Futures Initiative and the CBA Access to Justice Committee reports in the past few years have called for changes to legal education (note: I was involved with both reports).

The Futures Report points out that:

Learning has become a life-long proposition for lawyers. Expert knowledge, skills and continuing training in the law will result in better services to clients, and maintain lawyers’ competitive advantage in the future, particularly in an environment where clients have greater access to information online and from other sources. This means that the education and training of the next generation of lawyers must be examined from the following perspectives:

a) What will clients need in the future?
b) Who is best situated to provide it?
c) How do we measure success in the education and training of lawyers?

The Futures Report went on to make several recommendations on change to legal education, including:

  • An integrated, practical approach, including multidisciplinary skills training, should be incorporated into substantive curricula to provide “translational knowledge” – the ability to turn critical knowledge of legal concepts, regulatory processes, and legal culture into actual problem-solving ability in practice.
  • The curriculum for academic legal education should focus on learning outcomes and should be developed in consultation with key stakeholders.
  • Where they exist, legal and other constraints should be minimized to broaden the participation of law students in appropriate services in legal educational clinics.

The CBA Equal Justice Report called for more changes in legal education:

  • By 2030, three Canadian law schools will establish centres of excellence for access to justice research.
  • By 2030, substantial experiential learning experience is a requirement for all law students.
  • By 2020, all graduating law students have taken at least one course or volunteer activity that involves experiential learning providing access to justice.
  • By 2020, all law schools in Canada have at least one student legal clinic that provides representation to low income persons.

The Federation of Law Societies has now appointed a committee that is looking at the competencies law graduates should have when they graduate. Its recommendations could result in a change to legal education.

What I find fascinating is that there is a lot of talk about legal education by the CBA, the Federation and its constituent law societies, and others, but there is one stakeholder missing from the public discussion: the law schools themselves. A few law schools are making changes to their curriculum.

I think it’s time that law schools took part in a public debate about legal education. Let’s hear from students and recent grads. Let’s hear from law firms of all sizes about what they want in new grads. Let’s get some ideas out there and bat them around. Let’s try out some of those ideas. Let’s look at what our law graduates need now, not at what they needed 20 years ago.

Are law schools ready for a debate? Are they prepared to start one?


  1. In the above series of “Let’s” the public interest appears to have been omitted. Should there not be included a “Let’s consult and hear from the general public how we (i.e., lawyers/justice system) can better serve in their interest.”

  2. A 4th year of law school that serves the same purpose as the 4th year at medical school–the beginning of specialization, is needed. There is not too much “theoretical training” as it’s called, but rather, not enough to keep up with needed changes in the law. For example, a course on the interaction between law and technology that cuts across traditional areas to include all of the different kinds of dependence upon technology today.
    Don’t cut back on the present type of training. It’s as valid now as when I went to law school (1961-64). But there is more that is needed to be learned. Yes, law school fees are too high now (somewhat higher than mine were at Osgoode Hall L.S.: $650/year). If “practical training” must be added, work it into the 4th year of the student’s choice of specialization. Don’t try to add such a component to every law school course. That would waste most of it.

  3. Gerry Laarakker

    Interesting comment, but I doubt you can get the law schools on side. I remember the Dean of Osgoode sniffing that, “we teach law, not lawyers”. In fact, one of the profs referred to practicing lawyers as “plumbers”.

  4. Gerry,

    I think that’s already changing. The law schools are increasingly recognizing the need to modify their approach, but I agree that it was as recent as just 5 years ago that the sentiment you describe above was very common.

    In part this change may be prompted by declining enrollment rates in American law schools. Canadian schools recognize their need to remain relevant, especially in light of rising tuition debt.

  5. I am an SRL who has studied, for a lifetime it seems, (as a hobby) school systems in all their überbureaucratic, self-serving glory.

    It is really distressing to read in the quote from the CBA – and no offence intended, because it’s hard to avoid – the worst that education jargon has to offer. I wrote a blog post about it some time ago: The jargon is no less assailable in law than it is in the compulsory schooling of children. It is my advice that the minute you find yourself saying one of these words, back up, and back away. In the field of pedagogy, the charlatans have the house, and they have the house because they have had monopoly control over a captive audience for 150 years. That kind of power does things to a person; mostly, it makes them stupid. Please, Law, don’t go there.

  6. Colin Richardson

    Even in the realm of academic legal theory, the 100% final exam method of evaluation that’s prevalent in law schools has been shown to be one of the least effective ways of teaching in various studies. A mix of quizzes, papers, participation and exams yields better results in terms of content retention.

  7. Samuel Michaels

    Two elements of law school are, I believe, primarily responsible for creating an atmosphere which is the antithesis to business preparation:

    -an approximately $75,000 price tag
    -a “curve” grading system

    These two realities lead to new lawyers whose primary concern is earning income, and whose primary training is in internal competition. Hopefully these two issues will become part of the rhetoric soon!

  8. Roderick McLaren

    The article as written is mainly confined to Canadian Law schools, however the same applies to Australia. There is a leaning for some universities’ to include industry compatable practical training but it is not necessarily the norm. Various law schools need to interface with law schools to prescribe what outcome’s they require in a law graduate.