ABA law school report resonates in Canada

ABA law school report resonates in Canada
Osgoode law dean Lorne Sossin says the ABA task force’s call for more innovation, differentiation, and experimentation applies to Canadian law schools.
The American Bar Association’s task force on the future of legal education released a draft report on Sept. 20, shining a light on the need for change.

While the current process of training lawyers is still much different in the United States than in Canada, some law deans here say Canadian law schools should take note of certain points made in the report.

“It is a different law school environment north of the border than south of the border,” says Philip Bryden, dean of the University of Alberta Faculty of Law. “That said, there are some important observations that the task force makes that I think are important for Canadian law schools to think real hard about.”

For instance, the report’s discussion on how the practice of law is evolving also rings true in Canada, he says. The lack of lawyers in rural areas and access to legal services for poor, low, and even middle-income populations — we are facing the exact same problem here, says Bryden.

Experiential learning is also discussed at great length, which Bill Flanagan, dean of Queen’s University Faculty of Law, says there is a growing demand for in Canadian law schools as well.

The report states: “The profession’s calls for more attention to skills training, experiential learning, and the development of practice-related competencies have been well taken. Many law schools have expanded such opportunities for students, yet, there is a need to do much more. The balance between doctrinal instruction and focused preparation for the delivery of legal services needs to shift still further toward developing the competencies required by people who will deliver services to clients.”

The task force points out several problems related to legal education, but lists two of the most profound as the price of legal education and the culture of law schools.

“The general sense of tuition and cost providing huge barriers of access, and then debt and the ongoing effects of that high tuition leading to more challenges for students on choosing their career, getting started, anxieties about the changing legal market — all those are very much realities here in sometimes differing degrees, but they’re all top of mind issues,” says Osgoode Hall Law School dean Lorne Sossin.

The report also brings to light some of the difficulties with the ABA’s accreditation process and suggests revising it. With the Federation of Law Societies of Canada’s national standards coming into effect for all common law jurisdictions in 2015, Sossin says the warnings in the report are worth a read.

“We’re going to have to be vigilant to continue to have an innovation culture notwithstanding this scheme, and that is very much what the ABA report is alive to and in fact recommends greater flexibility in a whole range of the constraints that are now under law schools through the ABA accreditation,” he says.

“The parts of the report that I think speak the most to a Canadian legal education context are the ones promoting the need for innovation, for differentiation, for experimentation, [and] for law schools taking some risks to try things that are going to provide students with a better learning experience and at the same time end up providing more in the way of legal services,” he says.

The report outlines specific recommendations for various parties involved in educating lawyers, including law schools, the ABA, the courts, bar associations, the government, law firms, lawyers, etc.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we have a legal system that provides lawyers and other legally trained professionals who are in a position to serve the needs of our communities for legal services,” says Bryden.

The task force also set out the following themes to serve as a framework for improving legal education:

•    The financing of law-related education should be re-engineered.
•    There should be greater heterogeneity in law schools.
•    There should be greater heterogeneity in programs that deliver law-related education.
•    Delivery of value to students in law schools and in programs of law-related education should be emphasized.
•    There should be clear recognition that law schools exist to teach people to provide law-related services.
•    There should be greater innovation in law schools and in programs that deliver law-related education.
•    There should be constructive change in faculty culture and faculty work.
•    The regulation and licensing of law-related services should support mobility and diversity of legal services.
•    The process of change and improvement initiated by this task force should be institutionalized.

Bryden says it doesn’t make sense for Canadian law schools to adopt all of the task force’s ideas. “Instead, I think we want to look at some of the principles that they articulate [and] how they apply in a Canadian context,” he tells 4Students.

Although legal education in Canada isn’t in the same dire situation as the United States, Sossin says it’s important to start thinking about these issues now.

The report is “clearly written in this environment of a crisis going on in the U.S.,” he says. “We really are at the crossroads but not the crisis in terms of our own system and that gives us time and a chance to get it right.”

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