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Time for law schools to rethink teaching law

|Written By Heather Gardiner
Time for law schools to rethink teaching law
Calgary law dean Ian Holloway says, ‘We equate volume with rigour — law school is hard because we keep shovelling stuff at our students.’

As professor Richard Susskind put it: “It’s not just what we teach, it’s how we teach.”

This was one of the central messages at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law’s recent conference on the future of law school.

As a direct result of the changing legal profession, academics and legal practitioners at the conference expressed the need for legal education reform.

Susskind, a United Kingdom-based independent adviser to law firms and governments, listed three major forces of change in the legal profession:

1.    The concept of more for less: clients are demanding more value, legal services are becoming shared services due to costly fees

2.    Liberalization: new service models are emerging, the billable hour is disappearing

3.    Technology: computers are changing the way legal services are done, routine legal work doesn’t need to be done by lawyers anymore

Much of Susskind’s talk focused on technology and how it will change the way the next generation of lawyers is going to work, and more importantly how legal education can address this.

“There is no way 10 years from now that human beings will be pouring through documents the way we do now, it just won’t happen,” he said. “And yet, that’s what so many junior lawyers do at the beginning of their careers.”

Susskind predicted new jobs for lawyers will emerge — such as legal knowledge engineer, a legal process analyst, legal project manager, and an online dispute resolution practitioner — which will require different skills.

The big question, he said, is this: “What are we training — in very large numbers — young lawyers to become?”

Depending on who you talk to, you will get a different answer to this question.

Gillian Hadfield, a professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, said it’s not so much about determining what law graduates will become but rather providing them with the skills they need to succeed in the legal realm.

“We need to be thinking about orienting our students to problem solve,” she said.

“We need to think about teaching them about our client’s context . . . in some cases that’s going to be understanding something about business, understanding something about environmental policy, understanding the dynamics of family breakdown, understanding the world in which those problems arise and the people who are coming to us for help.”

Problem solving is exactly what University of Alberta law professor Peter Sankoff teaches his students. He switched to a problem-solving approach when he noticed students were losing interest in his lectures.

Since technology has had an impact on the way students learn, Sankoff created what he calls law capsules, which are 10- to 20-minute computer-generated lectures accessible to students before and after class so they come to class with a basic understanding of the concepts.

Through the use of these capsules, Sankoff said he has noticed a vast improvement in student engagement. However, he admits capsules are not the only way to reach students.

“The future of law school has to focus, whatever way you do it, on better teaching. I think it has to recognize that we have to give students opportunities to learn in a way that suits their needs and their learning styles,” he said.

“In my experience, that means a lot more active modes of learning and less lecturing in front of the class. . . . Studies show that students want more engagement and I think they want to test their skills in the classroom each day, and to do that well I believe students still need professors to provide them with critical information one way or another, and this is certainly one way of doing that.”

Sankoff said professors should take a hard look at how they are teaching students.

“There needs to be a great deal of critical self-reflection on what [professors] are doing and whether or not it’s actually working,” he said. “Are we doing enough to meet the needs of this generation and how they process?”

“Reconsidering the way we teach on the ground in each class has to be a critical part of the future of law school,” he added.

University of Calgary Faculty of Law dean Ian Holloway pointed out the way most professors currently teach is not the way people learn.

“We equate volume with rigour — law school is hard because we keep shovelling stuff at our students,” he said. “Most of us don’t focus on depth.”

Law faculties need to stop talking about the courses they teach and instead talk about what students learn, said Holloway.

Susskind said the problem is that law schools are not adequately preparing students for legal practice as it is today.

“We’re training [students] to be traditional, one-to-one, bespoke, face-to-face consultative advisers who specialize in individual jurisdictions and charge by the hour. What we really need is flexible, team-based, hybrid professionals who can transcend legal boundaries and are really motivated to draw on all sorts of techniques of technology and modern business management, but that’s not the generation of lawyers we’re seeing emerging,” he said.

“Our legal world is changing,” he added. “We have to see where [it] is going to end up, where are lawyers likely to be, and therefore how can we organize our training, our education around that.”

As a strong proponent of experiential learning, Osgoode Hall Law School dean Lorne Sossin argued it’s a better way to teach and learn.

Experiential learning “creates better law students,” he said.

“Law students who are problem solvers are simply better than law students who have specialized knowledge,” he said. “Even those who have specialized knowledge and analytic abilities, if they haven’t actually put them to the test, the humility that comes from trying to solve a problem that is unsolvable is like nothing else we can possibly teach.”

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