The Future of Law School

01 Future of Law School

Scott Meyer (2L)

The Faculty of Law’s centenary has officially come to a close.  In a year that started off with Chief Justice of Canada and alumni Beverley McLachlin speaking to our student body, The Future of Law School conference provided a perfect ending for our Faculty’s 100th birthday.

 While there were many great moments from the conference, these were some of the highlights.

 The conference kicked off with an insightful keynote presentation by Gillian Hadfield from the University of Southern California. Professor Hadfield focused her presentation on the progression of the legal profession and it’s current challenges.  Of note was her discussion of the current access to justice crisis, partially attributing the crisis to the unwillingness of the legal community to work on practical solutions, such as the licensing of non-lawyers.

The next Keynote was delivered by legal tech innovator Professor Richard Susskind, who addressed three major driving forces for change in the legal marketplace: the ‘more for less’ demand, the liberalization of the legal profession, and an economy that is increasingly being driven by technology.

Today’s clients demand ‘more for less’; they are no longer willing to pay steep billable hours for junior associates to do huge amounts of grunt work that could be outsourced or off-shored to less skilled workers at a fraction of the cost of a Canadian associate.

Discussing the potential liberalization of the legal marketplace, Professor Susskind advocated that lawyers should be successful in the market place not because they’re actively trying to exclude all of their potential competitors from the marketplace, but rather because they offer a superior product.

Susskind closed his keynote off by identifying information technology as the third major driving force behind change in the legal profession, with the presence of companies like Legal Zoom now filling a large role in the marketplace, being highlighted.  “The internet is changing every other profession,” he said, “we can’t think it won’t affect lawyers too.”

After Susskind’s presentation, several other narratives started to emerge.  Most noticeable was the tension between the Federation of Law Societies of Canada (“FLSC”) and some members of the academy. While the Federation has moved to an accreditation system, a number of conference attendees clearly felt that the Federation’s competency requirements were an attempt to colonize the law schools and tread on the toes of academics’ autonomy.  Additionally the Federation was heavily criticized for the perceived view that the only job of law schools was to produce practice ready lawyers.  The academy pushed back by pointing out that given the speed at which the profession is changing, the idea of what a practice ready lawyer looks like today may be radically different tomorrow.

Former FLSC President, John Hunter, argued the FLSC has the statutory responsibility to accredit lawyers in a way that safeguards the public’s best interests. Ensuring junior lawyer competency in specific areas is merely a means to that end.  He also maintained that this was not an attempt to colonize legal education, but given that law school curriculum had not been regulated for over 40 years, further oversight was needed.

Another strong theme that emerged was the focus on whether schools were providing their students with the proper skills and experiences to succeed in the legal profession.  One of the debates suggested that it was not okay for students to graduate before ever dealing with a client.  This contingent supported a view of legal education that included stronger skills-based and experiential learning classes to graduate more “practice ready” lawyers.  Osgoode Dean Lorne Sossin argued that a more dynamic pedagogy, including clinic work and other experiential learning, helps students gain a better understanding of the law and a greater capacity for critical thinking.  His message truly was “learn by doing.”

However, some panelists showed a continued faith in a more traditional approach with the role of the law school providing a broad and liberal understanding of the law – teaching students to “think like lawyers.” The role of the profession should be to teach practical skills through articling, continuing education, and hands-on practical skills. Law school is not a trade school, and some argued that teaching skills training would not benefit students in a rapidly changing legal market.

Finally, the last panel significantly dug into the possibilities that are available for legal educators to more efficiently teach their students.  In particular, a couple of the presenters from Oklahoma intrigued the audience with a variety of e-book platforms that would allow for students to interact with their case and reading materials on a whole different level.  Not only is the option to electronically mark up your materials available to both professors and students alike, individuals now have the ability to see how others have interacted with these very same materials.  For example, students would be able to ask the software to find the most commonly highlighted passages in a case, allowing for them to arrive at the crux of a decision almost immediately – a boon to any law student frantically searching for the ratio of a long and complex decision.

Representing our faculty, Professor Sankoff talked to the audience about his use of 20-30 minute online videos or pre-class “capsules” to combat student disengagement and maximize class time.  Responses on Twitter suggest that Sankoff has inspired some of his colleagues both at the U of A and other law schools, to experiment with this flipped classroom format.

With the conference coming to a close after a stirring presentation by William Henderson from Indiana University, Professor Adams final remarks resonated with many in the audience; while our profession and our legal education system is in flux, crisis in law schools has led to some of the most innovative moments in our history.

Anyone interested in reading the papers presented at the conference is encouraged to pick up the special edition of the Alberta Law Review later in the school year where the papers will be published.