Law prof pressures may be barrier to preparing law students for new reality of lawyering

Law prof pressures may be barrier to preparing law students for new reality of lawyering
Craig Forcese says law schools should do a better job of preparing students for the modern practice of law.
Associate professor Craig Forcese of the common law section at the University of Ottawa is interested in the academic engagement of other law professors, in part the pressure on them to pursue research.

Forcese, who has a blog called Bleaching Law where he discusses issues pertaining to law professors, says he is “among those who think the schools can and should do a better job of preparing students for the modern environment,” including professors who are given the encouragement to be more engaged in teaching innovative skills.

“The profession, and students who want to be members of the profession, want training that includes knowledge and skills,” he says. “Professors are caught between universities who want research, and a profession and students who want training.”

“It’s tough to square that circle.”

Forcese recalls typical jobs junior associates were given, which nowadays are taken over by automated systems. Lawyers need to offer services “further up the value chain,” he says. Law schools need to be responsive to the times.

“The profession’s changing — we need to accept that,” he argues. “The way we teach and approach law school should also change. Law schools need to adapt.”

For Paul Paton, dean of law at the University of Alberta, the law professors at his school are meeting the challenge in spades.

“Over the last five years, four of the law professors here have actually won university-wide teaching awards,” he says. Most recently, Peter Sankoff won the 2014 Information Technology Award for innovative use of technology in teaching.

That indicates a commitment to excellence both in research and teaching, says Paton, because many of the professors who won are also the university’s leading researchers. Paton says students still need to be exposed to cutting-edge research and be engaged in what legal scholars — their professors — are doing.

Kim Brooks, dean at Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, believes law schools — and their professors — are well on their way to doing just that. She says colleagues across the country are doing “terrific, innovative activities in their classrooms” but that it can be easy to understate, or even miss completely, those contributions.

Paton agrees, saying he’s been at schools in the U.S. and Canada that “grappled” with ensuring teaching is valued and recognized.

“Universities can do a good job in creating the right incentives for faculty to experiment, because sometimes there is a bit of a disincentive,” Paton says.

If a university is focused on classroom evaluations exclusively, he explains, and doesn’t give room for professors to try different approaches, that’s going to “constrain the way in which [the professors] approach the classroom.” But if universities are willing to invest time and money in faculty innovation, which Paton is clear the U of A is keen to continue doing, faculty will benefit with finding new ways to deliver effective pedagogy, and more importantly students will do well being exposed to different ways of learning.

It is important to him the University of Alberta — and all universities — be committed to excellence in teaching in traditional and innovative ways.

“I’m looking to explore ways in which we can continue to lead that edge, and ensure that teaching and research are exposed to the students as important priorities for our faculty right from the start,” he says.

Lee Stuesser, dean of law at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., agrees with Forcese’s comments on research-centric traditional models that exist across Canada’s universities. However, he identifies a more detailed issue.

“One of the problems is that it’s not just a pressure on research, it’s a pressure that you do a certain type of research,” he says.

“Some of us, our audience is judges and lawyers — that research often is not well regarded in the universities [and seen] as not being pure research,” he says. “Other researchers, their audience are other academics and that is, in many quarters of university, more accepted.”

The problem, he says, is being typecast to do the type of research where you get the funding.

“Many of us do scholarship research, which is speaking to the profession, speaking to judges as to reform of the law, but aren’t out chasing grants and such like that,” he says. “In some places that’s not that well regarded, and that’s unfortunate. We should be embracing research in all of its forms.”

Paton counters Stuesser’s opinion with another real-life example from his university. He says there’s been “a real mix” and one of the winners mentioned earlier, Eric Adams, has recently received a research grant to look at Japanese internment during the Second World War — a “perfect illustration” of both an award recognizing teaching as well as working on research that’s securing grants.

“As somebody who has engaged in the last decade in research . . . I see the benefit in maintaining an open approach to what our researchers are engaging in and making sure that it’s valued and appreciated whether or not it’s theoretical, doctrinal, or applied,” says Paton.

What it comes down to, Forcese says, is more innovation. “It means a lot of different things but the status quo is no longer acceptable,” he says.

But what does, or should, innovation mean?

“We should look broader at what lawyering is about now in the 21st century,” says Stuesser.

One example is one of the required courses Lakehead law students have to take:  the business of law.

“Our students need to understand the business component,” Stuesser explains. “When I was a law student that would be the last thing I would be taught, yet when you immediately go out into practice . . . [you need to ask] what are the realities of the business of law? That’s the type of innovation we need to do more of.”

“We need to look at how we deal with people, how we can be better communicators, and a lot of that has nothing to do with the so-called black letter law we are traditionally comfortable with. We need to look at what the needs of the profession are and how we can best address those needs in the law school.”

Brooks sees the need to reinvigorate legal education as a challenge and a call to action that most are heeding.

“I love . . . the continual renovation to legal education and [the challenge] of pushing at our, and our students’, comfort zones in the classroom in aid of more active learning,” she says.
“I think that kind of challenge is in the best tradition of law teaching in this country.”

Paton gives credit to his law professors, calling them self-motivated and interested in experimenting with new innovation and technology.

“One of the things a couple of our people have done on their own is called ‘flipping the classroom,’” Paton says, where students watch a lecture online and class time is passed working on problems in groups guided by the professor.

“It supplements, it doesn’t replace, the traditional classroom experience,” he says. “And as we’re wanting to train our students to be problem-solvers for clients and for the public, it’s a great way of actually replicating that in the classroom.”

“I’m very proud of the faculty who are leading the way in experimenting with new approaches and using new technology to . . . enhance the learning experience for our students.”

“What is good is we’re in a time of change and reflection,” sums up Stuesser.

“I think that people suddenly realize there isn’t just one way to do it, that we need to look outside the box, we need to recognize there’s not just one model of legal education — there can be a variety of models of legal education. I think that’s really positive — and exciting.”

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