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Evolution of law schools: What practising lawyers should know

Thursday, September 03, 2020 @ 9:51 AM | By Noel Courage and Sari Graben

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Noel Courage
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Sari Graben
There are a lot of interesting initiatives happening at law schools. If you have been too busy practising to pay close attention, this article will get you back up to speed and give you some insights into how it might affect you.

New law schools are coming on stream

After decades without a new law school in Canada, three new law schools opened in the last 10 years. Many lawyers are only vaguely aware that Thompson Rivers, Lakehead and Ryerson all started new programs. Memorial is making plans to do the same.

The reason lawyers generally care about these changes is that new schools add more lawyers to the market, which can mean more competition for market share. Whether the relative increase in the number of lawyers already trained by current law schools and trained abroad is economically significant depends on practice area and geography.

However, what all lawyers should also care about is whether these new law schools and current law schools are training students who can meet needs that are presently under-served.

The benefit of these new programs is that many were formed to address a particular need in the legal market. The schools put a lot of thought into areas of law that need more support or they focus on particular skills that are needed. Some of these focuses may be in your area of practice, creating opportunities to recruit students with compatible interests and complementary skills.

As well, you may get involved with the school to share your knowledge, or attend online or in-person seminars that law schools host in a particular area of practice.

For example, both Thompson Rivers and Lakehead have declared interests in natural resources and environmental law, as well as law related to Indigenous peoples. Given their locations, these mandates build on similar ones in other schools but offer distinctive perspectives and training opportunities. Ryerson has typical core law offerings but will also emphasize skills-based learning that addresses access to justice and technological entrepreneurship for all students.

These schools have been consultative and responsive to constructive input from members of the bar. The effect is to put different kinds of lawyers with different kinds of perspectives and skills into the workforce.

Skills-based learning

For many years, law schools weighed the balance between teaching substantive law and practical skills. However, with the exception of law clinics, law schools did not offer much in the way of training for legal practice. Much has changed in recent years.

Law school leaders have rapidly grown experiential learning in scope and depth in most law schools in the country. Many law schools have expanded on their clinical offerings but also involved various law firms and legal organizations in running those clinics. For example, Osgoode and University of Toronto now offer clinics in topics such as legal aid, intellectual property, mediation, venture capital and community legal services.

Another approach is to create internships. Dalhousie University created diverse, individual internships, with a future goal that each student be offered the chance to take a substantial hands-on learning opportunity before they graduate. The University of Ottawa and other schools allow students to propose internships at law firms and legal organizations for course credit.  

The newest schools, Ryerson and Lakehead, take a twofold approach to skills training. Students in these programs must participate in a 15-week placement under the supervision of a lawyer who will provide them with experiential training. In addition to placements, these schools have also added skills-based learning to the curriculum. These courses use practical assignments to dovetail with lectures on doctrinal law so students learn to think critically about issues that arise in practice.

Given the time restrictions that lawyers operate under and the little interest clients have in paying juniors to learn, firms will benefit from hiring those who have some knowledge of legal practice and have gained some hands-on experience. There are also a good deal more opportunities for lawyers to get involved by volunteering to mentor at a clinic or to sponsor an internship or placement position.

Students who have taken the initiative to get involved in experiential learning opportunities are only a short way up the learning curve but they may be more likely to have had a fire lit for your practice area.

Integrated practice curriculum

It is possible to get called to the bar in Ontario without articling or completing the law practice program. This is a new opportunity at law schools that have what the Law Society of Ontario calls an integrated practice curriculum (IPC). Lakehead was the pioneer of this approach, partly to address an anticipated shortage of articling positions in Northern Ontario. Ryerson has adopted the same approach in order to address cost and length of time it takes to become a lawyer in Canada.

The law degree is deemed sufficient for licensing because the IPC curriculum integrates legal skills with substantive legal knowledge and provides opportunities for practice placements. Lawyers who enjoy training and who are in need of support will benefit from providing placements that students will need, as well as hiring these junior lawyers upon graduation.

Access to justice

Many practising lawyers are becoming more aware of social justice issues but are not sure how to participate. Law schools remain an important place where access to justice and social justice issues are analyzed in relation to law. The bar will continue to benefit from the energy and thoughtfulness of junior lawyers who have honed their critical thinking about these issues in law school.

Moreover, law firms can support the numerous access to justice initiatives that universities are running. For example, the University of Windsor hosts a National Self-Represented Litigants Project. It creates resources for self-represented litigants such as checklists and information on how to present in court or settle a case.  

If your legal skills and experience are not that compatible with hands-on work for access to justice, your firm can still support access to justice initiatives, for example, by donating to an initiative or funding a law school student bursary for disadvantaged law school applicants.

Law schools are producing graduates that are more practice-ready and focused than ever before. Take a closer look at a law school and find out where you can fit in to strengthen the relationships between students, lawyers and community.

Noel Courage is a partner and patent attorney at Bereskin & Parr LLP in Toronto. His practice focuses on patenting and licensing inventions. He can be reached at Sari Graben is associate dean, Ryerson Faculty of Law.

Illustration by Chris Yates/Law360

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