Skip to content

An outside perspective

Law schools use external reviews to sharpen their visions for the future
|Written By Olivia D’Orazio
An outside perspective
UNB law dean Ian Peach says external reviews help faculties think about the way forward.

The University of Toronto Faculty of Law recently posted its latest external review online. This got us thinking: do all law schools undergo external reviews? We spoke to six law schools across the country about this very common, yet rarely spoken of, practice.

Most, if not all, law schools undergo some sort of external review. Many universities are instituting policies whereby an outside review must be done periodically to assess the school or faculty. Often, a review committee — usually comprised of three or four well-regarded professionals — is chosen by, and reports to, the university.

Some law schools freely post results online, like the University of Toronto, while others regard them as private. Dean Philip Bryden explains the University of Alberta law school regards the reviews as “an internal management report to the provost on the unit. . . . We use that as an internal document, rather than a document that we present to the world.”

While some law school reviews coincide with the end of a dean’s term, as at the University of Western Ontario, other schools, like the University of Manitoba, commission reviews after a set number of years.

However frequent or infrequent these reviews, each dean agrees on their value. Since the University of Western Ontario commissions a review at the end of a dean’s term, dean Ian Holloway says the review is used as both a guideline for appointing a new dean and a direction for that new dean to follow.

“Part of it is to inform people as to what we should be looking for when we’re looking for a new dean or we’re looking to reappoint the current dean,” he says. “If it’s a new dean that’s being appointed, he or she is given a copy and has a sense of the context of the deanship that he or she is assuming.”

Dean Ian Peach of the University of New Brunswick notes the necessity of the faculty to change as society does.

“The legal profession changes,” he says. “Faculty compliments change quite drastically and one needs to keep apprised of what’s going on in the external environment, or with the profession that we serve . . . where the depths and breadths of your faculty’s capacity compare to the depths and breadths of the needs of the profession.

“You need to do period reviews to ensure that you’re well aligned to give students the best possible professional education.”

Dean Donna Greschner of the University of Victoria law school describes external reviews as “a commitment to educational excellence; and in pursuit of that commitment, it’s useful and important to have a fresh set of eyes to examine what you’re doing.”

This examination is important in bringing about needed changes in the law school’s program. Queen’s University law dean William Flanagan says the reviews are “always a good source of new ideas for a law school. It can highlight some areas that may need improvement; it can identify opportunities for the school.”

Acting dean of the University of Manitoba’s law faculty, Lorna Turnbull, says the benefit of an external party review of the school is helpful since this new perspective can bring to light some things that may have been overlooked in a self-assessment.

“All of us have our own particular biases or things that we become accustomed to or don’t question,” she says. “When you bring in someone to look from the outside, you get fresh eyes. And that is always, in my opinion, a positive thing.”

Another benefit to an external review team is that their report may, as Bryden says, “help in building the case for change . . . to the university.”

Many institutions would be reluctant to invest in a single faculty for, say, a new building. However, if a review submitted by respected members of the community also proclaims the need for a new building, the university would be more likely to oblige, he says.

Turnbull also points to the value of a review in terms of the integrity it provides.

“It gives credibility to claims that are made by a unit about its quality,” she says. “I, as the acting dean of the faculty can say, ‘We’re a great law school’ and I can have credibility in making that comment when others outside of the institution who have no vested interest back me up with a review that says, ‘Yes, indeed, this is a good law school.’”

Once the reviewing committee submits a report to the university, the faculty reacts to it almost immediately. At the University of Manitoba, the dean of the law faculty must submit a detailed plan that comments on the report within three months. At the University of Alberta, the review is evaluated and critiqued by the dean, the provost, and the faculty.

“It goes back into a planning process,” says Peach. “ We use it here as a way to think about how to go forward, where our . . . needs are for ensuring that the program we provide is properly attuned to the needs of the profession.”

Bryden describes the process as “very useful and helpful either in making you feel good about some of the things that you’re doing well or sharpen some of the areas where improvement is needed and figuring out a good way forward for those purposes.”

However, Holloway notes some cynicism with reviews.

“The question is whether someone can come in for two or three days — because that’s usually the period of the visit — and really drill down in a meaningful way and get a sense of what the real picture of the law school is,” he explains. “There are some people who question the utility of the review in [its] current form.”