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Training tomorrow’s lawyers

Are law schools training tomorrow’s or yesterday’s lawyers? It is an urgent question, yet there is no simple answer.

As our cover story outlines, there are critics who say unequivocally that law schools are falling behind the times to the detriment of graduates. Darrel Pink, former head of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, put it bluntly when he said the Canadian academy is “continuing to do a very good job of training yesterday’s lawyers.”

Pink, who was one of Canadian Lawyer’s Top 25 Most Influential Lawyers in 2017 due to his work on regulatory innovation, is no traditionalist. He, along with other critics such as Jason Moyse and Mitch Kowalski, think Canada’s law schools are nowhere close to where they need to be.

But Pink, Moyse and Kowalski are innovators who want to push boundaries. Are the law schools intentionally not innovating simply because they are resistant to change?

To find out, our writer spoke with law deans across Canada. What he heard was not resistance so much as exasperation. Law deans know law schools need to change and innovate, but they aren’t able to do so at the pace they want.

They face a number of barriers. For Ian Holloway, dean at the University of Calgary’s law school, it is data. Law schools don’t know what is working and what isn’t because they aren’t tracking it. “We’re working on it,” he told us.

Lorne Sossin, outgoing dean at Osgoode Hall, says innovation is often discomforting. He also cites “limited time, resources and knowledge” as hurdles. Paul Paton at the University of Alberta mentions “entrenched interests” as a barrier. For Erika Chamberlain, dean of law at Western University, it is a “sense of inertia.”

But it was comments from my alma mater, the University of Toronto, that really struck me as highlighting the nub of the problem. Dean Ed Iacobucci asked, “Who knows if the software you use today will be the software you use tomorrow?” Teaching lawyers to use technology, a key skill for tomorrow’s lawyers, is just teaching them something that will soon be out of date. Iacobucci seemed exasperated by the rate of change, suggesting that trying to keep up with every new tool was a fool’s errand.

In other words, law schools should teach you to “think like a lawyer.” The rest you can figure out on the job.

But will lawyers in the new economy even need to think the same way as they have in the past? As Moyse points out, lawyers are increasingly going to be needed to “build information products comprised of a mix of tech, design [and] project management.” They won’t so much be using technology as building it. Will this still require them to “think like a lawyer”? Or will their legal training be for yesterday’s jobs, leaving them ill equipped to build the new products, as Moyse predicts?

For tomorrow’s lawyers, the answer is vital. And law schools need to figure out the answer today.