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The new Calgary Curriculum: what we’ve done

In my very first column in this series, which I entitled “What we know,” I offered a number of things that, to my lights at least, discredit the conventional model of legal education and lawyer training as we know it in Canada. Our duty, I said, is to prepare students for the profession they’re joining, not the one we joined. And there is no question, I argued, that their profession is going to look different from ours. From this it follows — axiomatically, it seems to me — that we have to reconsider how we “do” law school. What was relevant to us in the 20th century may or may not be relevant to our students in the 21st. And if it isn''t, then we owe it to our students — and at the risk of sounding corny, to the rule of law in Canada — to get rid of it and put something better in its place.

I also noted that we now know much more about how adults learn than we knew in the last quarter of the 19th century when the conventional law school model was born. We now know that adults learn best through short, intense engagement with their subject matter in which a lot of formative assessment (i.e. opportunity for practice) is woven into the equation. Unfortunately, I concluded, that’s not how law school in the North American model is traditionally conducted.

As I sit a month before the dawn of a new school year, I thought I might reflect on what one law school — my own, the University of Calgary — is doing to meet the challenges of legal education in the 21st century. We now have one year of the Calgary Curriculum, as we call it, under our belt, and we’re gearing up for year two. So what exactly have we done?

The Calgary Curriculum sprang from the twin premises to which I've already referred: that the contribution today's students will need to make to society is evolving (which is to take a public-based view of the statement that “the profession is changing, so we need to change, too”) and that the dichotomy we all reflexively draw between theory and skills is a false one (in other words, formative assessment goes hand-in-glove with deep learning). What we did was try to come up with a new curricular model that maintained the best parts of our traditional canon, while supplementing it with things that seemed to us to form a critical part of a law graduate of today’s tool box. And we sought to deliver it all in a way that is more likely to lead to deeper learning outcomes than the Law School Survey of Student Engagement suggests the current model engenders.

The Calgary Curriculum begins with a three-week boot camp — Foundations in Law and Justice, to give it its proper name. There is some substantive content to the Foundations course — I give a series of lectures on legal history, for example. But the real emphasis is on beginning the process of professional acclimatization. We give the students some fundamental skills training — things such as reading cases, understanding and applying the doctrine of precedent, learning to use the jargon of the law and so on. But we also introduce the students to lawyers and judges and police officers and social workers — all fellow actors in the legal system.

This coming year, we’re going to take the entire class out to a First Nations reserve for a day, as a first step (of many that we hope to take in years to come) in making them feel shared ownership of our collective duty in the reconciliation process. And while this may seem a small thing, the fact that we start law school with three weeks that approximate typical “office hours” serves a useful purpose of signifying a very deliberate break from the pattern of undergraduate study. Whatever else law school is, it's definitely not three more years of the same.

So the Calgary Curriculum begins with three weeks of intensity. And because the students have both knocked off one course and shortened their semester, i.e. the old-fashioned substantive courses that remain as important as ever, they have more contact hours per week. The intensity is added to by a compulsory course in legislation (rare for a law school to have) that, among other things, requires students to draft a complete public general statute. Want to imagine about as intense a hands-on introduction to legal drafting as there could be? Come look at the University of Calgary’s legislation course!

The month of January is also given over to a three-week intensive — but this time, for students in all three years. The first years carry on with fundamental legal skills — principally legal research, writing and appellate advocacy. The second years have three weeks on negotiations. And the third years have a three-week intensive trust advocacy course (involving almost 100 judges and lawyers taking part as volunteer instructors), which culminates in them trooping down to the Courts Centre to do a simulated trial before a Queen’s Bench judge.

So one way to describe our ambitions for the Calgary Curriculum is to borrow the real estate formula and say that we’re trying for all three of the key factors: intensity, intensity and intensity.

But we're also taking seriously the point that the profession is changing rapidly, and that law students need to learn things that just didn't exist as academic subjects when many of us went to law school. So this coming year, for example, we’re offering new courses in legal project management and leadership. For a few years now, we've offered very popular courses in innovation in legal services, law and technology and in business concepts such as strategy and risk management — the goal of the latter being to introduce students to the concept of looking at legal problems through the eyes of clients, rather than the eyes of a lawyer.

There are plenty of other things we’re doing, as well. Our clinical program continues to grow, for example. We now have six different clinical offerings (legal aid, public interest, environmental, business and entrepreneurship, tax and IP) and others are being tossed around. The International Energy Lawyers Program, which we offer in partnership with the University of Houston, continues to blossom. This year, we’re introducing what the business schools call a “travelling course,” where we’re taking (at no expense to them) the students to Austin, Edmonton and Washington, D.C. to meet governmental actors involved in regulating the energy industry. And so on, and so on.

“So how’s it all going?” is something I'm often asked by people who've been watching what we’ve been doing. My honest answer usually is, “Pretty darned well.” We’re proud of the fact that a school as small as ours — our entering class is only 125 students — can pull off a package as full as ours is. And as dean, I'm both eternally grateful for, and inspired by, the spirit of enterprise and adventure shown by my faculty and staff colleagues in actually doing it all. As any dean will tell you, the prettiest plans in the world won't amount to a hill of beans without the professional commitment to actually implement them. And, blessedly, we've got that in spades!

One other thing we've got going for us is a culture that allows for mistakes. I am convinced beyond any doubt that we’re on the right track with the Calgary Curriculum. But there is also no question that we've made mistakes. So next year’s offering will be better than last year’s, just as the year after will be better than next. The problem with the conventional approach to curricular reform in Canada was that it tried to apply civilian methods in a common law culture. Well, underlying the adoption of the Calgary Curriculum was an acknowledgment that we were committing to the common law model of gradual, but continuous, evolution and adaption. And really, what could be more fitting than that for a common law school?