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What we can learn from other professions

“But you don’t understand. They’re completely different.”

This was the retort I received a few years ago from a lawyer in Toronto when I suggested that as a profession, there were things we could usefully learn from accountants.

“The services they provide to clients are not like those which we provide. Clients expect different things from us. Plus, we’d never want to give up the partnership model like they’ve done. That’s the key to self-governance.” With that touch of bemused affection, thus ended the discussion.

I’ve had conversations like this several times over the years. Some lawyers are more willing than others to concede that there might be something we could learn from the other learned professions. But the overwhelming sentiment — even from those who think other professions, accountants in particular, have outstripped we lawyers in things like business development and client relations — is that their circumstances are so different there is little we could borrow from them.

In my time as a dean of law, my list of eureka moments is far, far shorter than the “Yikes! We shouldn’t do that again” ones. But without question, a bathtub moment occurred a couple of years ago, when I arranged for the associate dean of our medical school to take part in the work of our curriculum review committee.

On a scale of one to 10 in terms of revelation, it ranked a solid 12. For what my colleagues and I learned from him was that in medical school today, very little actual classroom work takes place, at least beyond the basic sciences taught at the beginning. Rather, almost all medical education takes place through what the docs call problem-based learning.

What will happen — and at the University of Calgary it begins in Week 1 of medical school — is that an actor will present to a group of students with, say, yellowish-looking skin. The students are meant to ask questions, and then go away and do some research. They meet the “patient” again, and ask more questions. More research follows, followed by recommendations regarding treatment. This is the process by which they learn about the liver and liver-based diseases like jaundice.

This problem-based learning model is now the norm in North American medical schools. The fact our med students no longer have structured lectures on the four chambers of the heart or the endocrine system or infections of the sigmoid colon seems not to have done violence to the cause of medical education. On the contrary, many specialists today will say that the juniors arrive at the hospitals much better prepared for the rigours of hospital life than in their day.

After our colleague from the Cumming School of Medicine spoke, we reacted in the traditional instinctive lawyerish way: “Well, this is interesting, but the law is different.”

But the associate dean had a remarkable forensic persistence: “Why?” he kept asking. What was it about our learning objectives that are so different from the learning objectives in other learned professions?

Yes, we want to inculcate theory, but does anyone think that our doctors don’t have to have a theoretical understanding of their work? And, like the doctors, don’t we prefer our graduates being able to actually have at least some grounding in skill? If not, how are we different from a graduate philosophy program?

And, by the way, do we actually know much about how much our students retain from what we think we are teaching them?

For all of us on the committee, this really was a eureka moment. After that, we went out of our way to connect with others. Or course, this included members of the profession (who could not have been more helpful), but it also included an expert in learning theory, who was able to tell us more about how adults learn.

Spoiler alert — it’s way different than it was understood in the late 19th century when the Langdellian model of legal education was developed.

And when it came to things such as leadership and project management, we reached out — to arms that we found extremely welcoming, I should add — to our colleagues from the business school, who’ve been teaching these things for years.

In our case, I have no doubt our ultimate reforms were far stronger than they would have been had we not tried to learn from the experience of others. Yes, law as a substantive profession is different from medicine, accountancy, or engineering. So, of course, our courses are different from theirs. But does it follow that the experience of our sister professions doesn’t hold directly applicable lessons for us? Not a chance.

Next time a lawyer says, “But we’re different,” don’t believe him. He’s either lazy, or wilfully blind. The common law is a system grounded in the experience of the ages. The premise of the precedent system is that the wheel need not be reinvented with each new case. Why shouldn’t that apply to our professional lives as well?

  • Ms.

    Jane Fritz
    It's so easy to assume we are special in our respective professions and exclusivity creates barriers. Great article. Thanks for sharing.
  • Lawyer & Trademark Agent

    Michele Ballagh
    I would like LSUC to look closely at the regulatory model used by real estate agents and financial planners which require them to "place" their license with a "broker" of some sort. In the legal profession, "brokers" could take over management of the trust accounts for small law firms (10 lawyers or less) and provide some administrative support, especially with respect to IT. It would be much more efficient for LSUC to oversee a few hundred such brokers than thousands of sole practitioners/small firms. I think sole practitioners and small firms provide a valuable service to their communities, but need a more efficient delivery model that both lawyers and the public can trust, especially for managing trust accounts. These models would have to be adapted to deal with confidentiality obligations, but I think LSUC needs to take the lead. For good reasons, lawyers are trained to be paranoid about privacy and skeptical about new technology that puts privacy at risk. We need guidance.
  • law school

    Ben Carter
    Is this guy shocked to discover that law school is useless? Every lawyer realizes that within the first six months of practicing law.