The Future of Law School: Lively and Provocative!

Katherine Thompson - 03 October 2013

"Based on the panellists, the keynote speakers, the scope of what is being talked about, and the fact that you are focusing on the really fundamental issues, this is without doubt the best conference on this topic I have ever heard about on this side of the Atlantic," said Franklin Snyder, Texas A&M University School of Law. "So for me to have the University of Alberta Faculty of Law do something like this is an incredible service to all of us. As an American law professor up here to learn. I think it is outstanding!"

The Faculty of Law's Centenary Year culminated with the lively and often provocative "The Future of Law School" Conference, which took place from the evening of September 26, through to the end of day Saturday, September 28, 2013. The Conference, which featured lawyers and academic leaders from around the world, was ideally timed to raise and address critical questions regarding the future of legal education. What should the law school curriculum and teaching practices of the future look like? What is the purpose and rationale for university-based legal education? What role can and should the legal profession play in legal education? What is the future of articling? Will skills-based training and experiential learning form a greater part of the law school's future?

The Future of Law School was structured around the following four themes:

  • Foundations: Tackled the history of Canadian legal education and what ideas and principles should inform its future.

  • Circumstances: Investigated the changing circumstances of legal education and the regulation of lawyers and how law schools should respond.

  • Challenges: Looked at the changing nature of legal practice and how those transformations should shape legal education.

  • Practices: Discussed at how teaching content and practices should look to best prepare law students for the future through innovating the content and delivery of Legal Education.

"I think the future is open not only for law faculties to define but for the entire legal profession and other stakeholders outside of the legal profession," said Professor Joseph Thai, University of Oklahoma College of Law. "I think it is an important conversation for everyone in society to have because the law affects everyone in society critically, whether or not they appreciate that, on a day-to-day basis."

Prof. Gillian Hadfield

Professor Gillian Hadfield, University of Southern California, Gould School of Law, treated the audience who had gathered in the Telus auditorium on the first night of the Centenary Conference to a history of law and lawyers, right up to the present day. She pointed out that we are going through a "crisis of access to justice", with no-one except the very rich or the very poor being able to access legal advice/lawyers. Hadfield recommended that we need to increase ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution); licence non-lawyers such as paralegals, limited licence technicians, and legal assistants, especially needed in family law; authorize ABSs (Alternative Business Structures) thus allowing non-lawyers to have ownership of and participate in the legal process; increase the use of technology in a bid to help make the process of law cheaper, faster, and more accessible; and finally fix law schools!

Prof. Gillian Hadfield & Dean Philip Bryden

Law schools, she said, need to reinvent themselves by rethinking how they teach, what they teach, and who they teach. Using applied knowledge, law schools need to teach students not only about the law but teach them how to "practice" law by engaging in "client context" and active engagement in problem solving. Hadfield recommended a move away from the elitism and insularity that currently defines not only law schools but law practice. The challenge is how to open up access to law schools, and thus in turn the practicing of law, to more economically, culturally, and ethnically diverse people, so that law graduates who go on to practice law better reflect society as a whole.

Law is responding to the same global economic shifts that other professions are responding to. But the difference is that we are seeing other professions such as medicine evolving in response to these global economic shifts. Medicine for example developed nurse practitioners to work alongside nurses and doctors.

Professor Hadfield's keynote address focused on three key drivers of change:

  • law schools partnering with law practices (and vice-versa)

  • improve on what law schools already do well

  • think about diverse role models, such as those that we see in medicine

The first day of the Future of Law School Conference came to a close in the Telus lobby with the sound of many voices passionately discussing and debating the issues that had been raised that day, and anticipating what was to come over the next two days.

"Very impressed with Gillian Hadfield's talk and the general notion that we need to be spreading general legal knowledge to a wider base," said Don Buckingham, Canada Agricultural Review Tribunal, Ottawa. "The one thing that seemed to be missing from her presentation was, that if we are really going to be effective in the change we have to get the legal profession to come alongside of us. I feel a bit like I am coming in from the outside and saying, 'I see what is coming out of the law schools, and I see it differently now than when I was a law professor, we need to have industry/the legal profession on side so that we can construct a new institution.'"

"Some of the criticisms of legal education are warranted, and we should examine them," said Professor Joseph Thai, University of Oklahoma College of Law. "But I think there are a lot of things that law schools do particularly well that we don't sufficiently appreciate. For example there is a critique that we don't teach enough skills or teach skills as well as we should and I think that that critique is partly warranted but I think that it overlooks the fact that we teach very well a particular skill that will serve lawyers the rest of their life, and that is the skill of "thinking", thinking critically, thinking creatively, thinking deeply and thinking broadly."