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New style law school

|Written By Derek Hill
New style law school

Faculties across the country are offering a slew of cutting-edge and innovative courses to prepare young lawyers for the future of law.

Wrongful convictions. Racial profiling. Anti-terrorism and armed conflict. Public health concerns. How our society will cope with a rapidly aging population. It’s as if they were headlines and stories ripped from today’s news — there would even be a sports section, covering the Olympic Games — but, rather, they are just a smattering of the new and innovative law school courses intended to keep the next generation of lawyers in touch with both the present and future of the legal profession in Canada.

The response from Canadian law schools to an inquiry about novel courses was overwhelming, and there simply isn’t space here to mention them all. But for students planning course selections for the fall and beyond — or for anyone thinking of attending law school — here are a few new offerings worth checking out.

Wrongful conviction workshop

University of New Brunswick

For anyone intrigued — or even outraged — by the high-profile miscarriage of justice cases of Donald Marshall, David Milgaard, or Guy Paul Morin this course may be for you.

Six students in the second or third year of the LLB program at UNB (with the appropriate prerequisites, of course) will be accepted into this seminar/clinical course debuting this September, where they will first examine what causes wrongful convictions, what the Canadian experience has been, and the process for dealing with one under the Criminal Code.

Then, says Professor Jula Hughes, comes the clinical phase, where the students will examine a murder case. “We’re actually going to look at a case that has been identified as a potential wrongful-conviction case regarding a prisoner in Renous, N.B., [in the Atlantic Institution, a maximum-security facility] and consider the file.”

Hughes says the students will meet the inmate, speak with various people important to the file, and help counsel prepare a brief that could then go to the justice minister. “The whole idea of a wrongful-conviction file is that you have to get back to an investigation phase,” she says, “and that’s what the students are doing — they’ll participate in that.”

Hughes says our understanding of how much error exists in the criminal justice system has been greatly enhanced by DNA evidence. “We’ve really come to understand that what we thought was a very marginal problem is probably a sizable one.” In recognition of the problem, the University of British Columbia and Osgoode Hall law school offer similar hands-on courses, both as part of the Innocence Project.

Hughes says what she finds exciting about her own course was the ability to integrate the academic and the clinical. “I think what’s emerging in terms of legal education is simply a re-thinking of the relationship between what we teach in the classroom and teaching the art of advocacy at the same time, or the art of becoming a lawyer in charge of a file,” says Hughes. “There’s a developing legal issue and there’s a pedagogical interest that’s evolving.”

Elder law

Queen’s University

“Over the last little while, the profession is beginning to accept the idea of a more autonomous area dealing with the interests of older people emerging,” says Professor David Freedman, who in September will be offering what he believes to be the country’s first course in elder law. The course is a response to the statistics suggesting that within 20 years, more than 20 per cent of the country’s population will be 65 or older, he says.

“One complaint of the practitioners, often, is that they don’t have a holistic appreciation of the issues. They may know about estate planning, but they don’t really know about long-term care access or rights. And so, to supplement those other courses [Freedman also teaches in the area of wills, estates, and trusts] what we’re trying to do is bring these other issues together, to give students a better grasp of these kinds of issues that are going to be increasingly important.”


Ethical lawyering in a global society Osgoode Hall Law School

“We have, for the first time in 30 years, comprehensively revised or reformed our first-year curriculum,” says Dean Patrick Monahan. “One of the things we’re really excited about is our new mandatory course on ethical lawyering in the global community.”

While the concept of offering a course in legal ethics is nothing new, what’s different here is the delivery; the key word being “mandatory.” Whereas most law schools provide the option to take a course in legal ethics — usually an upper-year course which is not typically highly-subscribed — under the new program at Osgoode Hall, every first-year law student will be given an introduction to the course over three days in September, to be followed by an intensive two-week class in January where all other classes will stop, and students will do nothing but work collaboratively, looking at ethical issues in a global context.

“It was our feeling that it wasn’t being sufficiently addressed in our program,” he says. “It was possible to go through three years of a legal education and never actually be required to deal in a direct way with issues around ethics and professional roles.”

The school undertook a strategic plan two and a half years ago, says Monahan, and the ethics course grew out of both the Chief Justice of Ontario’s Advisory Committee on Professionalism’s recommendations, and the growing emphasis in academic literature of the importance of ethics and professionalism as part of a law school education.

Monahan adds that the law school has also added a new requirement that every student perform 40 hours of public interest work outside the classroom before graduation.

“We think this is quite an important initiative,” he says. “We are trying to take a leadership role in placing these issues into the curriculum front and centre, and emphasizing them to our students.”

Law of the Olympic Games

University of British Columbia

It’s no surprise that this course sprung up at UBC, what with the Olympics coming to Vancouver in 2010. And although the course has been offered for a few years now, it warrants a brief mention simply because it’s so topical. Even though it’s only 2007, the games are in the news “every three days,” says Professor Joe Weiler, which helps make it fun. “The students get a lot of the material they would get in a sports and entertainment course, an intellectual property course, and in a finance course — and they get it in the context of the Olympic Games.

 “They’re going to learn about public-private partnerships in context. They’re going to learn about environmental sustainability in a context, they’re going to learn about intellectual property rights — and in each of these areas, the Olympics are on the cutting edge of law reform,” says Weiler.

Go Vancouver, 2010!


Communications law/class actions

University of Windsor and  University of Ottawa

Also worth mentioning is this ongoing “virtual exchange,” whereby students studying in Windsor are able to enrol in a course in communication law offered through the University of Ottawa via videoconferencing. On the flip side, students in Ottawa can “attend” the course in class actions offered by the University of Windsor and taught by high-profile litigator Harvey Strosberg.

“I think this idea of shared courses in order to expand the curriculum and in order to get the very best people in front of the students and to ensure cross-fertilization of ideas among both faculty and students is a coming wave for law schools — and we’ll probably see more of them,” says Bruce Elman, dean of law at the University of Windsor.


Honourable mentions

The courses noted above are just the tip of the iceberg; there are many other innovative offerings at Canadian law schools that have students and faculty excited about returning to class this fall. Others available for the first time include: animals, culture, and the law that is being offered for the first time at the University of Victoria; law and religion at Dalhousie; anti-terrorism law at the University of Ottawa; law of armed conflict at UBC; racial profiling at the University of Windsor . . . and the list goes on.

For students whose interest may have been piqued by an offering from a rival law school, don’t despair. It may not be too late for you to do something about it, beyond the obvious transfer application. Although new course opportunities are often luck of the draw — it takes the availability of a professor with sufficient interest and expertise — student enthusiasm can go a long way. For example, the wrongful conviction workshop offered at UNB was in great part offered in response to a student

initiative. Videoconferencing is also becoming a more legitimate option.

Talk to the faculty members at your school; you might be surprised at what you can accomplish, because it’s clear that Canadian law schools are excited about providing a variety of course options, and intent on preparing their students for the future of the practice of law.

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