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Reinventing the legal wheel

Thompson Rivers University law course look at legal challenges ahead
|Written By Janet Guttsman
Reinventing the legal wheel
Katie Sykes, Assistant professor, Faculty of Law, Thompson Rivers University

There are no heavy legal textbooks in the required reading for a bold new course at the still young law school of British Columbia’s Thompson Rivers University, as assistant professor Katie Sykes seeks to equip her students for the rapidly changing legal landscape they will face as newly minted lawyers.

Instead, students sign up as partners in a fictional law firm, L21C, working in teams, honing their billing skills, planning new ways that law firms could work, and then defending their ideas to a “Dragon’s Den” of local experts, not all of them from the rarified world of academia.

“People who figure out how to provide services at low costs, the people who produce the Ubers of law, they are the ones who are going to make money, and do great, and everyone else is going to be in trouble,” Sykes says as she notes how Uber’s ride-booking service has changed the taxi industry.

“The ultimate goal of the course is to equip them with some tools and spark them to think about some ideas that will enable them to adapt. I can’t tell them how to do it; I don’t know it myself. If I knew how to start the Uber of law, I would go and do that, and I would be a lot richer. But I hope some of them will figure it out, and, at a minimum, I hope every single one of them won’t be blindsided by changes that nobody mentioned to them might happen.”

Sykes, who studied law at Harvard University, the University of Toronto, and Dalhousie University, spent more than six years at the big law firm of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP before moving to the academic world. It’s a career track that sets her apart from some of her professors, including one who told her, almost proudly, that he had never set foot inside a big law firm. But she also admits that her law degree, rigorous as it was, did not equip her particularly well for the real world.

“The model for teaching law is basically from the late 19th century — it hasn’t changed a lot since then, and there are good reasons for that because, as a lawyer, there are just some essential skills that you need. You need to understand cases, you need to understand how to extrapolate rules from them and how to apply them to facts, and you do need that and that method works for it. But that’s definitely a very small fraction of what you need, especially in a very changing world,” she says.

“I went to a fantastic law school that I loved that did pretty much nothing to prepare me for practice, other than perhaps I got used to having high standards of working hard. And I had absolutely no idea about any of the things that you do in real life. I took contracts because it’s one of the basic courses you take in first year, so you learn all these basic contract doctrines, like how is a contract formed and what constitutes breach of a contract and what are the remedies. Those things still apply today.

“But an actual contract? What a real contract looks like in the world I worked in? Having done a year of reading cases about somebody selling somebody a horse in 1857 was no help.”

The new course, Lawyering in the 21st century, forms one elective element of a three-year law degree, and Sykes admits she hopes it will help put Thompson Rivers on the legal education map. With high-powered firms focused so heavily on hiring top-notch graduates from established law schools, it’s good for students to get something that will set them apart from their peers, she says.  

“This law school is not Canada’s most prestigious law school. We’re the new kid on the block, and we don’t have the reputation, the alumni network, the endowment,” she says.

“I could imagine that my students might on average be the ones who come up with an entrepreneurial idea because they might be less likely to be hired by a Blakes or a McCarthys. Maybe the Thompson Rivers students are going to be the ones who in 20 years are the bosses. That’s what I want to convince them of. Opportunities are there for non-traditional ways of doing things that are going to increase.”

Thompson Rivers is not alone in working on ways to equip students better for life after law school, and Sykes says she took inspiration from legal consultant Mitch Kowalski, whose book Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century is on the reading list for her course. U.S. law schools, including Harvard and Stanford, are also looking at innovation.

The modules Thompson Rivers students will work on include drawing up a memo on an alternative business structure for their company, as well as blogging about activities and using cloud-based practice management systems. Discussion points include a look at the threats to the traditional law firm model, the death of the billable hour, and a mission statement that Sykes defines as “how not to have a bullshit job.”

“At L21C we want to do things better —   for our clients, for the wider community and society, and for the people who work here,” Sykes writes in her introduction to the new course. “Our vision is to find ways to serve clients better; to bring down costs so that real people can afford us (and so we beat the competition); to practice our profession ethically, based on deep reflection about what ethical obligations require of us in a changing world; and to do all of this while also living good and fulfilled lives.”

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