Under Pressure: Why legal education needs to change

By Beverley Spencer Spring 2016


I came across a story recently about a session at one of the CBA’s annual meetings.  Headlined: “Future belongs to young lawyers who can adapt to change”, it discussed the emerging importance of technology and the need for lawyers to think globally amid rising competition from new players.

“The legal profession must change with the times or face irrelevance,” warned Mr. Justice Michael Kirby, president of the Court of Appeal of New South Wales in Australia, adding “the snail of the law rumbles along faster than a lot of lawyers.”

That was 30 years ago. The young lawyers who heard Kirby’s speech are veteran practitioners now. But today, the drumbeat for reinvention is louder than ever.

As Leo Singer reports in this issue, the call for change is now being heard in the corridors of academia. Still steeped in tradition, law schools are under pressure from students and some faculty to take a more practical approach to legal education.

In a hyper-competitive marketplace, students want to be equipped with the skills, knowledge and tools to survive in a profession where they will be responsible for their own financial success and profitability. The forces of change that Kirby and others identified in 1986 have disrupted the old business model, creating new challenges and opportunities for new and experienced lawyers alike.

Some professors are taking a more practical approach to teaching like having students flex their legal problem-solving muscles as partners in a fictional law firm. But critics argue that a more fundamental issue needs to be addressed: the competencies students are required to possess to be admitted to law society admission programs don’t reflect the changing nature of the profession. And until they do, students won’t be ready to practise law in a changing market.

The future still belong to young lawyers who can adapt to change. But legal education also has to change to give them a fighting chance at success.

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