Three New Law School Concepts

It is possible that traditional law schools will reinvent themselves structurally from the ground up and become exemplars of innovative 21st-century lawyer formation. It is also possible that I will play Polonius, the irritating giver of unwanted advice, in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s next production of Hamlet. Both these scenarios would be welcome (especially Act III, scene iv, when the advice-giver behind the curtain finally gets what’s coming to him).

More likely, however, the reinvention of lawyer formation will begin outside of our legacy law campuses. Ryerson University’s new law school is a very promising entrant in this burgeoning race.

But frankly, I don’t see that the initial stage of lawyer formation needs to be affiliated with a university or academic institution at all. If a law society is satisfied that an entity has properly grounded its graduates in the foundational knowledge of the law and the essential features of the legal profession, then it should certify those graduates, regardless of whether the entity also has a nice coat of arms and a football team.

In that spirit, then, here are three very different visions for law school s— new ways of conceiving what “legal education” could and should now be expected to accomplish.

1. The Practitioner’s Law School

“We’re going to teach you how to think like a lawyer,” they told me on my first day of law school in 1990. You know how long it took me to start thinking like a lawyer? About six weeks. It probably took you less time than that. Then we both spent the next three years continuing to think like a lawyer, every day, in various areas of law.

“Thinking like a lawyer” is not that hard. Knowing who a lawyer is, what a lawyer is for, what a lawyer is supposed to do and say, how a lawyer is supposed to act and why — that’s hard, and law school is mostly silent on the issue. It is equally silent on “thinking like a client,” which some lawyers can apparently get through their whole careers without getting the hang of.

But what if a law school singularly devoted itself to developing law practitioners who knew the answer to all these questions? Yes, a number of law graduates never go into the business of advising clients, but there are plenty of law schools already available for them. This one would be for people who want to advise clients, solve their problems, and facilitate their opportunities, full stop.

First-term courses would ground you in legal reasoning, statutory and caselaw analysis, judicial inquiry, legal ethics and professional responsibility, the history of the profession, legal philosophy and the rule of law — “thinking (and acting) like a lawyer.” The second term would establish the basics of criminal, civil, constitutional, property, and liability law. (Does that seem like a lot? Check out what engineering students do in their first year.)

From that point onwards, the school would teach the skills of a competent practicing lawyer. A short list of these skills would include listening, empathy, judgment, research, writing, negotiating, persuading, managing time, managing people, managing projects, financial literacy, computer basics (Word/Excel), and customer service. Specialized substantive-law streams would also be available — three or four courses in how to be a defence lawyer, how to be a corporate securities lawyer, etc.

Essentially, this school would teach to the practice competencies of a modern lawyer. These competencies are helpfully identified in the 2012 National Entry to Practice Competency Profile for Lawyers and Quebec Notaries, produced by the Federation of Law Societies. They are also exemplified in outstanding fashion by the Practice Readiness Education Program (PREP) from the Canadian Center for Professional Legal Education, now used by the law societies of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia to provide pre-admission lawyer training.

Would the school described above actually be owned and operated by a law society? Maybe it would.

2. The Corporate Counsel Law School

Similar to #1 above, but with two differences. The first, perhaps obviously, is that the “practitioner” course mix would be geared towards single-client lawyers in corporations and government. The competencies here could be assembled with some help from the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) and its “12 Core Competencies Reference Model,” which includes data analytics, information governance, strategic planning, and organizational design, as well as leadership, management, and understanding risk.

The second and bigger difference is that this “school” would be owned by a consortium of corporations. Admission would be carefully curated, not just to look for people with the right talent and temperament, but also to ensure that the school’s graduates embody the diversity that law departments demand but fail to receive from law firms. Graduates could be offered positions within the law departments of the consortium’s owners, perhaps as part of a tuition discount arrangement or loan deferment plan as long as the graduate works there.

Traditional law schools are built on the assumption that the first and last place their graduates will go to work is in law firms or in sole practice (well, except for those utterly brilliant graduates who’ll become professors someday). They give almost no time or thought to graduates who will work for companies or governments. Rather than trying to add these sorts of features to a traditional law school, you could create a school exclusively for these institutional-client lawyers.

3. The People’s Law School

What if you created a law school not to develop lawyers at all, but to teach everyday people legal awareness, the basics of their legal rights and responsibilities, and the remedies that are available to them? You’d be graduating “citizen lawyers,” if you will, people who can then help their families, communities, and organizations to understand and resolve their legal issues and conflicts. That’s what a “people’s law school” would do.

Richard and Daniel Susskind make several excellent points in The Future of the Professions, primarily that professional expertise will become “democratized” in future and that the institutional barriers that keep this expertise out of people’s hands will fall away. I think that if you wanted to accelerate that development — perhaps if you were, say, a large non-profit foundation that wanted to improve access to justice — then this is exactly the kind of entity you’d want to create.

These are three ways in which the whole concept of “law school” could be configured away from the 19th- and 20th-century legacy institutions with which we’re all familiar, and toward a 21st-century ethic of collaboration, specialization, and client empowerment. Which, if any, do you like best? And if none of them, what would you advocate creating instead?


  1. Bill Flanagan, Faculty of Law, Queen's University

    Jordan, thank you for your thoughtful proposals. I would push back however on your suggestion that we might need three different kinds of new law schools. As you know, at Queen’s Law we have been highly innovative in thinking about legal skills for the 21-century lawyer with the development of our new Graduate Diploma in Legal Services Management (GDIP), a program unique in the common law world:

    The GDIP complements the existing JD program with a suite of easily accessible online courses that cover exactly the topics your proposed law schools number 1 and 2 would do, including financial literacy for lawyers, business strategy, marketing, client development, project management, innovation and technology, and working with teams and managing people. On top of this, our five robust clinical programs, including legal aid, prison law, elder law, family law and business law, directly address the need for a “people’s law school”. It is an unfortunately persistent myth that legacy law schools are not addressing the challenges and opportunities for the 21-century lawyer. In fact, Queen’s Law is leading the way.

  2. Thought-provoking as usual, Jordan! I see the logic in different schools for different purposes but wonder about the impact of segmenting based on “expected practice context.” Many enter law school with one path in mind and end up doing something different. Given HR trends, there is value in education that prepares learners for multiple paths. (And why should great topics like data analytics, information governance, leadership, and risk be reserved for in-counsel counsel and government lawyers?)

    On that note, why couldn’t we aspire to “professional foundations” education offered across various disciplines? There are absolutely law-specific competencies that lawyers need. That said, the listed “skills of a competent practicing lawyer” are needed by most future accountants, doctors, managers, and many others. Imagine what a cross-disciplinary professional year could do to better equip professionals to work more effectively with one another (instead of breeding lawyers in law-only silos and then wondering why they struggle to take client-centred perspectives.)

    To that point, I would add “intercultural competence” (broadly defined) to your list of “skills of a competent practicing lawyer.” This ability to work effectively with people who have different values, beliefs, perceptions, and behaviours is emerging as one of the most important (and most practical) competencies for professionals of the future (including lawyers).

    Finally, in a “law school” of the future, I would love to see a focus on delivery and experience that equals the focus on content. We are discovering just how vital the educational design and learning experience are to what lawyers learn and internalize. Getting this wrong contributes to the systemic issues we see in the legal profession today. Getting this right could be a major game-changer for the whole profession.

  3. Le juriste de demain


    This is an outstanding article. Thank you for sharing your proposals. I couldn’t agree more.

    I am currently about to launch a platform in which courses will be about number #1 and #2 (the first of its kind in France). Two weeks ago, I have discussed the possibility of adding #3. It is highly relevant and i think i will definetly add a tab about it on the website.

    Again, thank you.


  4. RE: 2. The Corporate Counsel Law School

    “The second and bigger difference is that this “school” would be owned by a consortium of corporations. Admission would be carefully curated, not just to look for people with the right talent and temperament, but also to ensure that the school’s graduates embody the diversity that law departments demand but fail to receive from law firms. ”

    Firstly, thanks for the piece. I like these proposals and agree they offer a path to real specializations and teaching practical knowledge and skills that can be applied in real situations, be they in litigation or a corporate setting.

    I would simply caution however that, in this day and age still, anytime anything is “owned by a consortium of corporations. Admission would be carefully curated” to be wary that this is a likely recipe to simply replicate a economic and social class status quo in the profession. That is to say, predominantly white, male, and/or already privileged by class or family connections in law, or any combo thereof.

    The corporate world is making slow and progressive steps toward diversity in its hiring and positions of power, sometimes I think more so than law firms, but its still a work in progress. Left solely to the devices of profit and class privilege (which are readily code worded by terms like corporations and ‘carefully curated’) , its a recipe to revert to an older era of employment and practice that ought not to be encouraged as much these days.

    Still not sure what it is to think like a lawyer – don’t recall that lecture in 1L – I just try to solve legal problems and hope I get it close enough to right most of the time.

  5. Bill, I’m glad you raised the Queen’s Law GDIP, as it’s one of the (rare) examples of an innovative new offering emerging from an established law school. (Disclosure for everyone else: I contributed pro bono some interviews and perspectives to this program, as Queen’s is my alma mater.) I’d include Suffolk Law School’s Legal Innovation and Technology Certificate Program (to which I’ve also contributed in a professional capacity) as another example. I’m happy for further examples to be mentioned in the comments.

    Jennifer, thanks for your positive feedback and very interesting ideas! These all sound like excellent improvements and variations on my basic concepts. In terms of changing career paths, something that many lawyers (myself included) have done, I think that a “module” format, wherein you complete a block of classes/videos/experiential sessions in your new chosen specialized area and demonstrate your competence against a pre-set regulatory standard, could accomplish that goal — you simply head back to the “choice point” where you originally branched off and pursue a different path from there. That’s not really much different from what lawyers do now, but it would be more formalized and structured, to ensure consistency of experience and supervision (especially important from a regulatory perspective).

    Merci beaucoup, LJDD! My very best wishes to you as you pursue this platform to provide these kinds of training and educational experiences to French legal professionals.

    RA, these are valid concerns, and it’s fair to bring a robust dose of skepticism to any plan that relies upon corporations to act with a scintilla of the public interest in mind. Perhaps another way of expressing my idea is that I’m seeking a legal education/training/competence/experiential structure for lawyers who serve institutional clients in a salaried capacity. A major overlooked flaw in traditional law schools is that, to the limited extent they concern themselves with law practice and legal careers, it is almost solely within the context of a multiple-client private practice setting — the serial lawyer, if you will. (The same criticism could be levelled against regulators, for that matter). We need a preparatory path for the large and growing percentage of lawyers employed to carry out tasks in a corporate or public-interest setting. I admit I don’t have a great model in mind for such a system, but I sure hope somebody develops one.