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.”