Generation Lex: Law schools seek balance between theory and practice

The battle for the modern law school: academic study in one corner of the ring, practical knowledge in the other

April 25, 2017

Traditional bastions of legal learning are moving with the times by incorporating a more practical approach to legal education, yet critics say that they have not moved far enough or quickly enough to keep up with the changes enveloping the profession.

The debate puts academic study in one corner of the ring and practical knowledge in the other. Proponents on both sides insist there’s necessity and space for both approaches, but they differ on the size, placement and content that each should occupy in the law school curriculum.

“I think the attempt to juxtapose academic study and practical knowledge may miss why many of these innovations have been developed, which is to bring together academic study and practical knowledge along with the development of legal professionalism, rather than emphasize one at the expense of the other,” said Lorne Sossin, dean of Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto.

“Employers, in my experience, want law graduates who know both how to thrive in practice, and how to bring analytic rigour, critical reflection and creative problem-solving to their work.”

Lakehead University’s Bora Laskin Faculty of Law, established in 2013 and the newest of Ontario’s law schools, is perhaps the most innovative. Its program, which focuses on aboriginal law and natural resources, integrates legal theory into the practice of law by tying core law subjects to necessary practice skills. The integrated practice curriculum also makes Lakehead the first school to have graduates eligible for licensing in Ontario immediately on graduation. That avoids the need to article.

“Lakehead is a leader in demonstrating how Canadian law schools should be looking to legal services market niches and aligning their respective law schools accordingly,” said John Kelly, a professional legal services strategist who was formerly a professor at Seneca College’s School of Legal and Public Administration.

Similarly, Thompson Rivers University’s new law faculty in the B.C. interior has chosen to focus on educating students in niche areas, such as resource law.

It’s not that the traditional schools have been standing still. McGill University’s combined civil and common law degree, offered since 1999, may well have been ahead of its time. “This was and is a much-needed legal education niche for a country with two official languages and two officially recognized legal systems,” Kelly said.

For its part, Osgoode upped the spots available in the “experiential” part of its curriculum to 500 in 2013-14 from 268 in 2011-12. The faculty also doubled the number of clinical programs to 18, including clinics in environmental justice and sustainability, feminist legal advocacy, investor protection, and international and transnational law. The school’s “Praxicum” program, instituted in 2015, requires all JD candidates to take a clinical or intensive program to put legal ideas in action before they graduate.

Otherwise, the University of Victoria has created Canada’s first dual degree in Canadian common law and indigenous legal orders (JD/JID), aimed at transforming the relationship between state law and indigenous legal traditions. The first intake of students is expected for September 2018. The program will include intensive community-engaged teaching and research on indigenous law as well as a master-level coursework graduate degree in indigenous legal orders for those who already possess a law degree.

In Alberta, the University of Calgary offers an “excellence in lawyering” approach that includes a focus on energy law and seeks to prepare students for “traditional and non-traditional” legal careers.

The Canadian Bar Association is a strong supporter of the “niche” approach to legal education. The CBA’s Legal Futures Initiative, which includes a white paper called Transforming the Delivery of Legal Services in Canada, cites the immensity of knowledge and skills required of lawyers now and going forward, and focuses on specialization as the direction legal education should take.

“It will be difficult, expensive, and unnecessary for every law school in Canada to provide the full breadth of education to cover this wide spectrum,” the white paper states. “Law schools may wish to specialize in distinct pedagogical approaches, specific career paths, or new types of academic education.”

What Kelly and other futurists propose is that individuals leaning to legal-oriented careers include basic jurisprudence in their undergraduate studies, and then follow up with what Kelly calls a “combined LLM.”

“Students are equipped to learn law right out of high school,” Kelly said. “Foundational jurisprudence can be taught in no more and a year or a year-and-a-half of undergraduate studies.”

Indeed, the U.K. doesn’t even require a law school degree as a prerequisite for qualifying as a lawyer anymore. A six-year apprenticeship followed by an assessment through a “Solicitors Qualification Authority” will suffice. Eversheds and Baker McKenzie have already offered this route to qualification.

Kelly believes that lawyers as we know them will ultimately be replaced by what legal services guru Richard Susskind has coined “paraprofessionals” — not to be confused with paralegals.

“The paraprofessional is a multi-disciplinary professional services provider who combines a basic knowledge of law in a specified area associated with their expertise in a defined professional service field to integrate law into a broadly based client centered solution,” Kelly says. “The way forward for law schools is to become homes to a graduate ‘combined LLM’ that will become the  preferred professional credential in a broad professional legal services market.”

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