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In Looking: Curriculum Reform

Mustafa Farooq (2L)

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning”- Albert Einstein

Recently, at the U of A’s Faculty of Law, there has been a series of developments around moving our law school, and indeed Canadian law schools, into the future. Indeed, there is much to be proud of here at the U of A. We are a school with an exceptional faculty, a strong foundational approach, and an institution that has luminaries like Chief Justice McLachlin.

At the same time, there has been a recognition for the need to change.  Even as we become increasingly immersed in the information age, where a legal opinion is a click away, both students and faculties have been asking themselves how to improve the legal education system in Canada.

A number of fascinating possibilities are on the horizon. Some are to do with method, both of the dissemination of information and teaching method. Recently, the LSA’s move to online-free CANs has improved access to information for students, and has the potential to become a powerful database that makes it easier for law students to get better outlines. From the side of faculty, Professor Peter Sankoff’s method of the “flipped classroom” has been a unique innovative tool that improves in-class experience and saves time for both students and the instructor.

On the other hand, curriculum change is an incredibly powerful possibility for representing how we can improve the U of A. Drawing on examples from other law schools, perhaps the future of our law school should focus on developing roots within what Professor Harry Arthurs called “knowledge communities”, whereby students could gain highly useful inter-disciplinary thinking. The potential, for example, of collaboration between different students of different faculties is limitless. Imagining the collective results of innovative research done by students from Women’s Studies and Law or Medicine and Law demonstrate the possibilities of improving research of the U of A in general.

At the same time, we can look at exploring experiential learning and clinical education. Clinical education has typically been a non-profit learning opportunity for students that is in the public interest. At the U of A, for example, we currently have the Low-Income Clinic that allows for students to earn credit, participate in the clinic’s operations, and gain “practical” hands-on technical skills. However, we have the opportunity to heavily expand on that “clinical” educational component to create intensives where students participate in an intensive program, gain practical skills, and contribute back to the intellectual strength of the U of A’s Faculty of Law.

For example, the U of T currently has clinical “courses” for Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, a clinic for injured workers, a clinic for studying constitutional rights, a clinic that advises entrepreneurs and start-ups, a human rights practicum, a refugee law clinic, and a criminal law intensive. The U of T also allows students to participate in international human rights pro-bono programs that give students credit towards their degree.

Osgoode Hall, at York, which has one of the most extensive clinical programs in the country, features intensives that allow students to spend an entire semester, with the appropriate 15-credits, gaining valuable legal skills.

For example, the Aboriginal Lands, Resources, and Governments Intensive gives students a fascinating opportunity to give interested and qualified students the opportunity to gain immense practical and intellectual know-how in this highly specialized and growing area of the law. To quote from their website, “The Intensive Program in Aboriginal Lands, Resources & Governments began in 1993, after a group of Osgoode students was profoundly affected by the Oka crisis and challenged the Law School to do something to help Aboriginal people…

The program is unique in a number of ways, including that fact that students from all Canadian law schools are eligible to apply.  The full-term program begins with two weeks of intensive training at Osgoode followed by a two-month externship placement.  Placements may be close to home or around the world.  Past student placement have included: Toronto law firms, Te Awara Fisheries in Rotorua, New Zealand, Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, and Upper Skeena Counselling & Legal Assistance Society (USCLAS) in Hazelton, and a small community in Gitxsan territory in northern British Columbia.  Students are also required to draft a major research paper and make a two-hour presentation to the other participants in the program at the end of term.”

Osgoode also has numerous other intensives and clinical programs, including but not limited to Aboriginal Lands, Resources & Governments, Poverty Law, Criminal Law, Immigration and Refugee Law, Intellectual Property & Technology Law, Advanced Business Law Workshops (Mergers and Acquisitions) among others. All of these programs offer the opportunity for students to earn credits, sometimes for two semesters.

Before transferring to the U of A, I had the opportunity to apply for the Criminal Law Intensive at Osgoode. Had I participated in the program, I would have been required to take a couple of prerequisites and so that I could be paired with a Crown Prosecutor for the semester. I would also have been required to submit a research paper for credit, allowing for the law school and the legal community to benefit from my experience in an academic sense.

Recently, at the U of A, a number of students from the Law Students’ Association, Law Faculty Council, and Curriculum committee are starting to push for a clinical legal education program. They believe that clinical education can be a relatively inexpensive, but massive improvement to our law school, that simply requires our law school to connect with the broader legal community. We invite all students, however, to share their visions on improving our already stellar curriculum. At the same time, we hope to see student input on clinical and intensive education initiatives, with the goal of determining how these programs can be developed in such a way that best advantages students, and that allows us, as Einstein argued above, to never cease from questioning and moving forward.