Ian Holloway, law dean at the University of Calgary, says there are a few things those in the legal field know: the profession is changing and students are progressively less involved. That’s led to changes in the way the school teaches law.
The profession is changing — dramatically and rapidly, he says, and students become progressively less engaged with their studies as they go through law school. In addition, he says, knowledge of how adults learn is much better than it was in the last quarter of the 19th century when the current model of legal education was first developed.
“What we tried to do at the University of Calgary was to come up with a series of reforms which would address these things,” Holloway says.
The changes — set to take effect in the fall of 2015 — are partly a fulfilment of the school’s strategic plan, adopted in 2010. One of its ambitious objectives was to be one of the national benchmarks in what the school refers to as “excellence in lawyering.”
The basics of the changes to the curriculum are more intensity, more formative assessments, and an attack on the “false dichotomy” between theory and practice.
“Many law schools typically have either 100 per cent final exams or final exams worth 70 or 80 per cent and that’s summative assessment,” Holloway explains. “Formative assessment is used regularly throughout the term as a teaching tool.”
The dean gives examples of a quiz or small written assignments every few weeks, something to give students continuous feedback so they’re getting regular reports on how much and how well they’re learning.
The university also wants to ensure both theory and practice are given their due. Holloway says he’s believed for a long time that the dichotomy between them is a false one, and great lawyers need to incorporate both. He says the best lawyers he knows have a solid theoretical foundation but can also put those principles in motion to help their clients.
Another aspect of the curricular changes are what the dean calls “forward-looking courses.”
“We want to prepare the students for the profession they’re joining, not the one we joined,” Holloway says, referring to the changes the legal profession has undergone.
Intensive courses will be built in throughout each year of the curriculum. The courses will bring in more visiting professors from other disciplines — for example, social work or business — who are experts in fields relevant to the law students and where their pursuit of practising law might take them.
As for the courses themselves, they will be “project management, legal systems engineering, things like that,” says Holloway.
Daphne Rodzinyak, president of the Society of Law Students and a third-year law student, says the new courses are “a neat way” to get business skills at law school without having to do an MBA or other further schooling if a student wants to pursue private practice, for example.
The school already offers a second-year course in business skills she says is always full and wait-listed within the first day of opening up. Having similar options available is definitely a winning point with the student body.
The plan for the changes didn’t come together overnight. Holloway says over a year, there were nine meetings with faculty, five meetings with the student body, a meeting with the Law Society of Alberta and alumni groups, even a get together with general counsel and managing partners of local law firms.
“Hundreds of hours” of consultation went into the final product, and it looks quite different from the original proposal, says Holloway.
Rodzinyak says all-in-all, the law students were “quite pro change.” In the first consultations, the students weren’t on board with some aspects of the plan but the concerns have been worked out since then.
“The final product is something the students are very interested in and that will make the education experience even better,” Rodzinyak says.
Evidently the faculty agreed, because while the vote at faculty council wasn’t unanimous, it was overwhelmingly in favour. Human nature is such that people are uncomfortable with change, says Holloway, and the legal profession is no different.
But change is something necessary. Holloway says the traditional view of curriculum reform in Canadian law schools is once every five or 10 years. He says he doesn’t think that model can survive because it doesn’t “reflect the reality of today’s professional world.”
“We need a cultural change so we are in a perpetual state of curriculum reform,” he says.
As to the curricular changes pending for the 2015 school year, the dean says undoubtedly some things will go better than others and he wants to be “constantly monitoring, tinkering, and making modifications.”
He points out from the end of the Second World War to the late 1990s not much changed in the way law schools taught their students, and there was a tendency to homogenize. Now, Holloway predicts a reversal — increasing differentiation between the law schools.
He sees Lakehead University at one end of the pendulum, with its innovative approach, and The University of Toronto at the other end, with its more conservative, traditional approach to teaching the law. He says the point isn’t that one is right or one is wrong, but they’re different and they’re trying to serve different ends and meet different needs.
To an extent, students with an idea of what area of law they wish to join can pick a school that offers them more opportunities in that area. For example, Holloway says, if a student knows their professional ambition is to work in Northern Ontario or serve First Nation communities, they may be better off attending Lakehead.
In another example, as Rodzinyak points out, many students currently at U of C came because of the “strong clinical experience” available — they can get into court within the first month of law school, a perk attractive to students on a litigation path.
Prospective law students are going to be looking at what is available, she says, because generally the first year of law school is the same across Canada but seeing what else is offered that may differ from campus to campus after first year will be in the back of people’s minds, even if it’s not quite the driving force in their ultimate choice of school.
Holloway says his own school’s efforts are unique in that no other Canadian law school is making changes all at once the way the University of Calgary is trying to do, but is mindful that the nature of the common law system is to “all build on each other.”
“We’ve been inspired by what’s going on at other law schools in Canada and U.S. but we’ve tried to take best practices in a number of areas and put them together into a cohesive whole,” Holloway says.
“Our quest for professional relevance, to serve our students, is one that doesn’t end.”