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Failing grade

It’s time law students held their schools accountable for properly preparing them for careers as lawyers.

Crumpled ball of paper

In his book, Failing Law Schools, Brian Tamanaha presents a damning indictment of law schools in the United States where students pay escalating tuition and get little in return other than their JD and enormous student debt. Fundamentally professors do well and law students do not. In my opinion, the same is true in Canada. Increases in funding have not improved law programs.

A key problem is that, over the last 50 years, law schools in Canada have gradually moved away from the profession. Many deans and professors proudly proclaim that they teach “law” and not “lawyering.” The net result is that law schools are evolving into legal study departments more interested in producing would-be professors than would-be lawyers.

It is an attractive position for law schools to take. They have a monopoly. A person needs a law degree in order to practise law. Students will come regardless of what is taught. Yet, at the same time, law schools avoid responsibility and accountability. They can largely do what they want; what the professors want.

In my view, law schools are the gateway to the profession and as such they should do more to prepare students for lawyering. After all, the vast majority of law students who pay the high tuition do so precisely because they are looking for careers as lawyers.

Therefore, law students of Canada should demand more; if you do not stand up and demand greater accountability in your law schools, nothing will change. Do not accept rising tuition as the norm. Do not accept rising enrolments as a given. Ask yourselves: Has the quality of legal education improved? Are your classes smaller? Are your professors more engaged? Are you getting more value for your tuition buck?

At Lakehead University, we chose a different path. We chose to be a professional school — in the full meaning of that word. We chose to integrate lawyer training with the study of law and created the Integrated Practice Curriculum (IPC). The IPC is a structured program where lawyer skills are integrated into the curriculum in a progressive year-to-year development that culminates in a four-month practicum in the third year.

We are following this path for two reasons:

1. It is simply good pedagogy. Students learn better when they put theory into practice. The law comes alive when you have to take legal concepts and apply them in realistic practical exercises. And it will better prepare our students for the practice of law, which is the ultimate career goal for most of our students.

2. It saves our students time and money. We do expect more of our students within their three-year JD. However, at the end of their three years, our students graduate in May; in June they may write the bar examinations and in July,  provided they pass and are of good character, they will be called to the bar as practising lawyers. No articling and no further accreditation or training is required. We do the training in law school. And we do this at no additional cost to our students.

Let’s deal with two red herrings. First, there is the two-tier argument.  It is suggested that our students may be stigmatized because they do not article. This was raised in the Ontario debates over articling by those seeking to protect articling. What is forgotten is that the minority position, which was supported by a substantial number of benchers, was in favour of doing away with articling entirely. It also flies in the face of reality. As a lawyer you will be judged on your abilities and not on whether you articled or where you articled or whether you took the Legal Practice Program (a four-month training and four-month practicum after graduation) or whether you have a Lakehead JD.

Second, there is concern about loss of law school autonomy. The law school establishment, under the mantra of “academic freedom” (perhaps the most misused of phrases in universities) argues that they are not prepared to surrender a measure of their autonomy to the law societies. They like doing their own thing. We, on the other hand, are prepared to work with the Law Society of Upper Canada. Are we accountable to the law society for the Integrated Practice Curriculum (IPC)? Yes. But we march to the same drum: We want our students to be competent lawyers. There is good faith on both sides and we are prepared to work with the law society to see that the IPC addresses the required competencies.

The law society is not interested in directing our course content or how it is taught. It is interested in seeing how the skill training accomplishes its goals. All other professional schools, including medicine, nursing, and education, are subject to considerable regulation. They live with it and so will we. And we will still preserve our independence where it truly counts in the free exchange of legal ideas.

People fear change. It is a natural reaction to safeguard and seek to preserve the status quo. In the face of change the establishment takes to the ramparts. Yet change also provides opportunity to retool, re-energize and refocus — to do things better. Lakehead has seized the opportunity presented by the Law Society of Upper Canada’s willingness to look to alternatives to articling.

Our path is not the only path. Other schools can and should develop their own. However, what is also true is that change will not occur unless it is forced. This is why law students should demand more of their law schools — otherwise the status quo prevails.