Here’s to Law Professors

I was a law student in the mid-1970s. At that time, the curriculum in common law Canadian law schools reflected a widespread, if not universal, consensus on the content and scope of the core body of legal doctrine that would prepare students for a career in the legal profession. At my law school, in addition to the common first year subjects – torts, property, contracts, criminal law, legal systems and judicial process and legal writing – we were required to take administrative law, evidence, civil procedure, insurance, constitutional law (division of powers, that is – the Charter was not yet a gleam in anyone’s eye), jurisprudence, company law, sale of goods, secured transactions, trusts and family law. My law school did offer a course in Aboriginal law, then an unusual inclusion, and one on the law of so-operatives (this being Saskatchewan), and we did have some experiential opportunities in poverty law and labour arbitration. But little in the way of international law, no alternate dispute resolution, no intellectual property, no human rights or Charter-based courses. Certainly no law and happiness.

In the 1980s, many law schools, less confident in the traditional consensus, modified their programs to provide students with more choice. These modified curricula were also influenced by a decline of faith in the positivist paradigm, and perhaps by the influential SSHRC report, Law and Learning, authored by Harry Arthurs, which urged law schools to broaden their horizons by drawing on the perspectives of other disciplines.

Over the ensuing couple of decades, other influences on the law school curriculum have made themselves felt – the call from scholars of legal education and students themselves for more opportunities for experiential learning and engagement with the community; the insistence of universities on greater research intensity for faculty, larger graduate programs and the introduction of undergraduate research; the increasingly diverse range of careers that law school graduates enter; the ruminations of legal governing bodies about whether the traditional consensus on core legal learning – or something like it – can be resuscitated; the increased number of foreign-trained graduates, many of them Canadians, seeking admission to the bar; the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; concerns about the effective denial of access to legal services and the justice system of large numbers of people; and the emergence of proposals for significant changes in the delivery of legal services and the scope of the monopoly of the legal profession.

Given this lengthy list, it is not surprising that law schools are engaged in a renewed struggle to identify and implement a coherent set of objectives and aspirations for contemporary legal education. Striking a balance between ensuring that students receive a grounding in important legal paradigms and principles and offering them options that allow them to master law-related competencies in a variety of ways has presented continuing challenges.

Fortunately, the dean of every Canadian law school could put forward examples of faculty members who do not seem discouraged by the demands that require them to balance committed and skilled teaching, innovative scholarship and engagement with the community. Many faculty members have to add to this complex administrative tasks related to strategic planning, program development, admissions or improving the environment for students. My own experience suggests that many members of law faculties are open to innovation, enthusiastic about combining theory, practice and community engagement, and dedicated to helping their students prepare for whatever legal future awaits.

It is undeniably a period of transition for law schools, for reappraisal of their missions and their responsibilities. It is a time of significant change, and pressure for change, and this can be stressful and even alarming. It is also an exciting time, when legal educators (in partnership, one hopes, with the legal profession and the public) can devise new ways of providing those who aspire to learn about the law and the justice system with important insights into a vital public and social institution.

Beth Bilson
Interim Dean and Professor
College of Law, University of Saskatchewan


  1. I was a pre-Charter graduate of law school too. If today’s law schools and their deans are as directionless as is indicated by the tenor of this blog post its no wonder they are having difficulty going forward. Perhaps they should attempt to graduate students who understand:

    • the difference between a provincial court case and a Supreme Court of Canada case;
    • the use of correct legal terminology;
    • that stringing 2 coherent sentences is a row is a strength;
    • that there are unreported cases which do not appear in electronic databases; and
    • who know how to use a legal library.