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Sink or swim: The academy and the bar in Canada must move forward together

I have from time to time been critical of what I consider a tendency to isolationism in the academy and bar in Canada. In my view, this has worked to the disadvantage of both of us. 

[span style="font-size: 12.16px; line-height: 15.808px;"]I know that to some, this will sound terribly Pollyanna-ish, but as I once said at a meeting of the CBA, I think that we’ll either solve our problems together or we won’t solve them at all. Two solitudes may make for the quintessential Canadian plot line, but it’s a lousy basis for a relationship between those who teach putative lawyers and those who regulate them. 

[/span]That’s why I was so thrilled to have taken part in this year’s meeting of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada in October. For one thing, it was held in my home province of New Brunswick — and there are few places whose beauty can rival that of the Maritime provinces in their fall colours. But more importantly, the meeting brought together lawyers and law professors to talk about our shared challenges.

Full marks for this go to the Federation, for they invited law school folk from across the country. We included deans, professors, librarians and clinicians, and we represented civilian, common law and aboriginal traditions. For its part, the profession was represented by benchers, former benchers and executive directors and law society staff. Together, we talked through a broad range of issues, including two things that are top of mind for every Canadian law dean today — our responses to the calls to action in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the place of experiential learning in the curriculum.

The atmosphere could not have been more positive or good-humoured. In one session, for example, professors and benchers staged a mock panel in which they caricatured each other’s perspective on the bar and academy. As any Maritimer will tell you, the surest way to knock down social walls is to eat a lobster dinner together, which, thanks to the generosity of the Law Society of New Brunswick, we did. So conversation flowed freely. Treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada Paul Schabas even joked with me about my last column — which was extremely gracious of him, as I had been more than a little pointed in my criticism of the LSUC’s recommendation (since reversed) to abolish the Legal Practice Program.

It really was a wonderful step forward. But now the question is how to turn the goodwill we all shared into a momentum for evolution. 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?

The issues we talked about in New Brunswick were real and thorny. But they touched only the tip of the iceberg. Think about what is facing us: the calls to action, the future of articling — or if not articling, what to have in its place — the impact of technology on legal practice, the access to justice imperative, the experience of racialized members of the profession, mental health among lawyers and law students and so on and so on.

As always, history gives us a hint of what not to do. In October of 1985, the law societies and the law deans jointly held a conference on the future of legal education in Winnipeg. In some circles, it came to be known as the “Yachetti Conference,” after Roger Yachetti, the co-chair from the profession’s side. Yachetti was an inspired choice of organizer, for even though he was (and remains to this day) in private practice, he had a scholarly bent. (One of his proudest accomplishments, for instance, is that he was Ivan Rand’s last Gold Medallist at Western, in 1964.)

If you look at the papers from the Yachetti Conference, you’ll form an impression of something that must have felt quite like the New Brunswick meeting. The things suggested were way ahead of their time (have a look: they were published in 1987, under the title Legal Education in Canada, Matas and McCawley, eds). But if you look at actual influence on what was to come next, bupkis. Like so many other learned conferences, it left no visible imprint on either the profession or the law schools, except maybe in an odd classroom here and there. So, whatever we do, let’s agree that we mustn’t emulate the experience of 1985.

What we’re doing on the Prairies — and I’m proud to say that we actually started this a couple of years ago — is holding joint meetings of the law schools, the law societies and the bar admission program deliverers. I can’t say that we’ve yet seen a ton of substantive change stemming from them. But what we have seen is exactly what we saw on wonderful display in New Brunswick — an acknowledgment that almost all of our problems are shared problems, and that in our professional world — which seems to be turning faster and faster — we’ll ultimately either sink or swim together.