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A GC’s advice to law schools

Recently, an esteemed colleague of mine wrote on her Facebook page that a successful senior lawyer told her, in discussing the difficulties experienced by articling students in finding placements, that if students are alumni from  specific Canadian law schools, their likelihood of future success was minimal, and that their investment in their legal education was not worth it.

This spurred a conversation as to whether success is dependent upon what law school someone graduates from in Canada.

Here are my two cents: Unlike in the United States, where it is more important what law school you graduate from due to the perceived superiority of an Ivy League education, in Canada, law schools tend to be similar in quality and provide a fairly equivalent learning experience.

While some schools are more costly than others to attend, I have rarely come across a strong candidate who does not obtain a position merely as a result of the law school that he or she attended. Yes, sharing the same law school as your potential law firm hiring representative or general counsel may make the conversation/interview easier, but this will rarely result in any major advantage.

In light of the increasing cost of a legal education and the difficulties in finding post-graduation placements, here are my thoughts on what law schools can do to distinguish themselves from other law schools and  provide their students with true value for their investment:

Become leaders in practical education

In the United States, many law schools focus on building practical knowledge and developing hard skills. Yes, it is important to study legal theory and to obtain a solid foundation in core areas of the law, but there must be a greater focus on building practical experience and skills.

Most non-lawyers assume that lawyers are taught how to think on their feet, how to make sharp presentations, how to examine or cross-examine a witness, etc. Sadly, most law students can attest that this is not happening today.

Yes, these skills can be developed in moot competitions, but participation for law students is often optional. Where particular courses, like trial advocacy, are offered, space availability in the courses may often be limited. These courses should also be core mandatory courses.

No law student should graduate without mastering these fundamental skills.

Teach the business of law

A large number of lawyers either never practise law at a firm or they leave private practice after several years. These legally trained professionals then have myriad career alternatives available to them, including going in-house. Yet, upon making such a move, these professionals quickly realize that they must now think and act more as business people than as  lawyers.

Unfortunately, unless they possess a background or degree in business, these legally trained professionals will have no experience or knowledge in this critical aspect of their work. Law schools should focus on teaching critical business skills, such as:

•    reading and understanding financial statements;

•    project and litigation management;

•    negotiating, drafting, and administering alternative fee arrangements;

•    legal department budgeting;

•    creating and delivering effective business presentations; and

•    communicating with the media and crisis management.

This can be easily achieved by working in conjunction with the business department within the university to offer core business courses related to the business of legal practice.

This huge gap has been identified and recognized. Organizations like the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association have developed certification programs such as Certified in-house designation to meet these gaps. However, using a car industry analogy, we currently are focusing on aftermarket solutions for the problem; a problem that is best rectified by the OEM at the source of production to ensure greater adoption and integration. The same applies in this case to law schools — business fundamentals should be at the core of modern legal teaching. 

I do not have, nor will I ever claim to have, all the solutions to the growing crisis with regard to legal education and the problems law students are having finding work after graduating. What I can say is that the law school that shows initiative in making these important changes is the type of law school that in the future can legitimately claim “that unless someone was an alumnus from this law school, their likelihood of becoming a successful future lawyer would be diminished and their investment in legal education was not worth it.”

  • Lawyer

    Bradley Wright
    Too few lawyers per capita is a very bad thing for a society. Just look at the countries with very low per capita rates of lawyers. Close behind as a very bad thing is too many lawyers per capita. Just look at the countries with very high rates of lawyers per capita. A sensible balance is needed, and that does not happen when the law schools put their bank accounts ahead of the public interest and when the government sticks its head in the sand. Too many lawyers harms the public in overt and invidious ways, but the harms differ on the solicitor side and the barrister side. On the solicitor side, it leads to desperate fee cutting leading to corner cutting and incompetence (assuredly not mitigated, but worsened, by the evil of title insurance), while on the barrister side it leads to churning and dragging out, often unreasonably, of files and engaging in ever more frivolous law suits. Meanwhile, we wait and wait and wait for the doctor, and wait and wait and wait for the judge.
  • Lawyer

    Bradley Wright
    Mark, you should also consider that the evolution to no longer failing any law students began shortly after the NDP government cut medical school enrolment. The professional school universities made up for the loss of medical student grant and tuition money by no longer culling law students at the first year Christmas exams but instead keeping them around for all three years. Later, of course, they also bloated in size. Ottawa U law school more than doubled in size, graduating far more than warranted by either population growth or societal need. Perversely, the increase in self-represented litigants has risen in lockstep with the huge increase in the number of lawyers per capita. That, and an overly complex litigation process (designed by the government as a cost-saving measure to grind people down before they get to a government-paid-for trial judge), are the twin drivers of our current litigation morass. More lawyers per capita will only worsen the situation.
  • General Counsel

    Mark Le Blanc
    Fernando, I'm right there with you. The skills necessary to be an effective in-house counsel, and particularly a GC/CLO, require an understanding of basic business fundamentals, as you note. They also require an understanding of the business your company is in, and the risk tolerance of your company. How to build this knowledge is teachable, and I for one, believe that most law students would benefit from more formalized training for these skills. Thanks for raising this issue.
    For what it's worth, I don't agree with Bradley Wright's comment. Law grads can do many invaluable things upon graduation, of which litigation is only one. We may need more doctors and nurses (questionable), but the funding of that is a separate issue.
  • Lawyer

    Bradley Wright
    Most law schools mostly train students to step right onto the Court of Appeal, and not for private practice (Robert Kennedy said the same thing). Further, they are letting in far too many students and failing virtually none of them for the simple desire of wanting the grant and tuition money. What happens downstream does not concern them. The economy can absorb only about 1200 calls a year but 2000 are pouring out. 800 calls per year are going to have a very rough time, made worse by their desperate fee cutting to get clients, leading to volume work at the expense of competence and inevitable harm to the public. This copying of the American mess has been foisted on us by people who do not do what we do, do not understand it, and suffer no consequences for their decisions. This sad and harmful situation is only going to worsen as long as the government continues to waste scarce education resources on unneeded law graduates at the expense of needed doctors & nurses etc. Simple as that.