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The summer of love, sesquicentennial edition

Like many of my fellow baby boomers, my mind of late has often wandered back half a century. This month marked the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bandthe seminal album of the 1960s — which was followed a couple of weeks later by the Monterey Pop Festival, which in turn marked the beginning of the so-called “Summer of Love.” A couple of weeks after that, we celebrated Dominion Day, as we still called it, and the Centennial celebrations and Expo ’67 kicked into high gear. We all sang and danced and wrapped ourselves in what was then the “new flag.” It really was an exciting moment in which to be alive as a Canadian — even as a boy.

Wallowing in nostalgia aside, I begin with this because I’ve actually just had a 1967-type professional moment. Three columns ago, I wrote about a love-in (to use a ’60s metaphor) hosted last fall by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada. I lauded the federation for inviting deans, professors, librarians and clinicians to join in their annual meeting to talk about our shared challenges. It was, I suggested, a tremendously positive step in helping bridge the gulf between bar and academy. I thought that the federation deserved a great deal of credit (not least of all, I noted, because they had the good judgment to hold it in my home province of New Brunswick). But, I concluded, the challenge was how to turn the goodwill that the federation’s leadership generated into momentum for evolution. I put it this way: “No one who was there could have left thinking change is not necessary — or that we won’t be stronger together than we are apart. But how do we do it? How do we together change an exciting two days into the basis of a real cultural shift? How do we move away from the two solitudes metaphor to being more like Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa?”

Well, I’m proud to report that the Law Society of Alberta took up this challenge, and it has helped move the needle of co-operation a bit further along the dial. It set as the theme of this year’s Benchers’ Retreat “Preparing Tomorrow’s Lawyer.” And rather than simply deciding among themselves what law schools needed to do — which would have been the good, old-fashioned way to do it (see “Oops, I did it again”) — the law society invited the two Alberta law deans to take part.

More importantly, it also invited Chris Bentley, executive director of the Legal Practice Program and the Legal Innovation Zone at Ryerson University, as well as the deputy minister of justice, the leadership of the federation and the law societies of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia. Best of all, though, it invited a student recruiter (who is one of the best around, in my judgment), as well as an articling student (who was an NCA candidate, which has become Canada’s largest law school) and junior lawyers in both public and private practice.

Rounding out the group was Paula Littlewood, executive director of the Washington State Bar (and a former associate dean at the University of Washington Law School), who has written about the skillset needed by tomorrow’s lawyers (and who spoke at the love-in last fall).

The topics of discussion — for it really was almost all discussion and very little one-way lecturing — ranged from how early career lawyers feel about the profession (and how we are in some ways letting them down) to the future of articling (a particularly hot topic in Ontario, as we all know) to how we might infuse a culture of entrepreneurship in how lawyers are trained (including some of the interesting experiments that are taking place at Ryerson) to the more fundamental challenges of incorporating experiential learning into the law school curriculum.

Serious though the topics were, the tone throughout was one of lightness and humour.

It was a testament to the openness of our law society — not just that they’d assemble a group this diverse and representative but that they’d actually give them equal billing. But they did, and together we asked ourselves two broad questions: How well is the system preparing lawyers for practice? (Short answer: “Not very well.”) Given that, the followup went, what kinds of things do we need to teach and inculcate in the next generation to equip them to serve the public? (Long answer: “A whole bunch of things that aren’t presently taught anywhere in law school, articling or the bar admission process.”)

What I personally found most interesting was the degree of unanimity in the view that the biggest gap in the way in which we educate lawyers isn’t connected with the substance of law.

We joked about how the way to fix law school was to require all students to take a course in wills and estates (an in joke; some years ago, this was a blessedly short-lived proposal floated by the federation). Rather, almost everyone agreed, the gap is in what we often speak of as “soft skills” — things such as emotional intelligence, problem solving and the like. Business acumen, too, was another gap that seemed to be identified across the board. In the discussion groups in which I took part, even public lawyers (i.e., lawyers who are not driven by the profit motive) felt that business acumen was the key to efficient service. For someone working in a law school, at least, that was an eye-opener.

Now, of course, comes the hard part. Somehow, somewhere, we’re going to have to first come up with a more complete list of what exactly we need to teach that isn’t taught now. Then we’re going to have to decide who is going to assume responsibility for what. The rub is that we’ll have to do it in the context of a traditional market for legal services that is not just tightening but also evolving rapidly. As some of the senior staff of the law society and I agreed, it all seems quite overwhelming.

But the important point is that a few weeks ago in Jasper, Alta., we took a second step — which in many ways is actually tougher than the first, for a second step actually requires commitment. And, while it was ostensibly a meeting of the elder statesmen and stateswomen of Alberta’s law society, the conversation that took place was a multi-provincial one that involved young lawyers as well as old. How exhilarating it was to see us all agree on so much. The legal summer of love, 2017 edition!