Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Critics clash over role of law schools

From The Lawyer's Weekly:

By Nora Rock
Toronto
December 12 2008

"If the goal of medical school were to teach students not how to be doctors, but how to think like doctors, would you want to be a graduate’s first patient?

Professor David Chavkin of the American University Washington College of Law put this question to attendees at a symposium about the future of legal education hosted by Ryerson University on Nov. 25.

The curriculum being delivered in today’s law schools and its relationship to the demands of modern legal practice were scrutinized by speakers including Michael Bryant, Ontario’s minister of economic development, who noted the trend toward self-representation in our courts. “Over half of the people in Canada, when faced with a legal problem in their lives, have no idea where to turn,” said Bryant, who expressed the related worry that many of today’s law graduates emerge from law school ill-prepared to meet the needs of average Canadians.

While the Ryerson symposium’s intended focus was on future directions in education, attendee Noah Aiken-Klar, national director of Pro Bono Students Canada, pointed out that our legal community faces a chicken-and-egg style dilemma: while law schools struggle to recruit and train a more diverse student body, dysfunction in the profession causes attrition that hits non-mainstream lawyers — women, lawyers with disabilities and minorities — hardest.

Two factors — the Law Society of Upper Canada’s latest redesign of the lawyer licensing system, and recent calls for the abolition of articling — have put pressure on law schools to provide the practical, “lawyering” training that articling and the Bar admission course were once intended to accomplish."

You can read the whole article here.

This is a very useful and necessary debate to have. Here are my thoughts from the field:

1. It is nearly impractical for a lawyer to know everything that she needs to know coming out of law school, or even coming out of her articling year. Each and every day as a lawyer is a learning experience.
2. The focus should not be on what is taught in law school. The schools, the courses and the instructors are just far to diverse to accomplish a strictly "practical" legal education. In other words, the system has gone too far towards academia and theoretical instruction as opposed to a professional training system.
3. I believe that the number of core courses required should be increased at all Canadian Law Schools to include: wills & estates, real estate (not real estate theory, but real estate conveyancing), family law (practical training, not case law theory training - in other words, how to file for divorce, how to defend a divorce, how to run a custody trial, etc.), basic incorporations law (i.e. how to incorporate a company, how to prepare resolutions, etc.), and chambers and trial advocacy (you should have to prepare for and run at least 2 uncontested applications, and at least 2 contested applications).
4. The law societies should work towards training principals (lawyers who are partnered with articling students - mentors) and law firms to, in turn, train new lawyers. It used to be an apprenticeship program with lawyers, and we should move back towards that model, where a new lawyer is provided more simple tasks for a year or two, and then moves towards more complicated transactions and files over the years. In fact, I believe that law school should be run similar to some trades programs, where you intersperse schooling with practical training (i.e. one year on, one year off). Some students have that opportunity, somewhat, with summer internships, but not all students land a summer position. It should be mandatory for all students. This model would perhaps prolong things, but I like the idea at its core.
5. I actually think that the US model where you get thrown into the deep end upon graduation isn't such a bad idea, if the mentoring is there. It seems like some firms have excellent mentoring programs set up for new graduates, but there are probably many who are lost through the cracks (think Grisham's Rainmaker for an extreme example).
6. Law firms should ultimately be accountable to new lawyers or lawyers-in-training.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this debate.

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