Lawyers challenge law schools to do better

Lawyers challenge law schools to do better
(l to r) Nova Scotia lawyers Matthew Fraser, Christine Doucet, James MacNeil, Heather Oke, and law professor Robert Currie at the Canadian Bar Association''s roundtable on preparing for practice. Photo: CBA
Law students face a rapidly changing environment. Law firms are closing down, law school tuition continues to rise, and there are less articling positions for students, particularly in Ontario.

The Canadian Bar Association’s magazine in collaboration with the Nova Scotia branch held a roundtable discussion on the future of legal education at the Dalhousie Schulich School of Law last week. The Preparing for Practice roundtable is the first in the series Inside the Bar 2013. Students came to hear from practitioners from across Nova Scotia about how law schools, firms, and bar associations can improve legal training.

“The career path begins at law school,” says James Rossiter, legal counsel for Parks Canada and moderator of the event. “The debate over the balance between academia and legal practice is older than the Carlill Smoke Ball. With the changes going on, the debate has taken more importance.”

The friendly debate involved discussions on what can be done to bridge the gap between academic and practical training. Adrian Lake, a first-year law student in the joint JD/MBA program, was concerned about the changing business model for private practice.

“Things are changing dramatically,” said Lake. “The skills sets I need may not necessarily be the same skills that lawyers have today. I look at Bay Street and over half of the associates hired have joint JD/MBA degrees. I’m wondering about client service and what I need to learn for the future.”

Matt Fraser, a partner at Hood Fraser Law in rural Nova Scotia, called for a modified third-year curriculum where practitioners would teach workshops and seminars on various topics such as trust accounts and billing systems. Lawyers would receive continuing legal education credit for teaching.

“We have an opportunity with mandatory CLE to get practitioners into the law school,” said Fraser. “Students who maybe want to go into rural practice or take over a lawyer’s practice in five years can start preparing before they leave law school.”

Business skills are essential for students to succeed in private practice. James MacNeil, the managing partner of Boyne Clarke, said the articling process helps students to transition into the business of private practice.

“Where do you go to learn to ask clients for money?” said MacNeil. “It’s a skill you need to learn. It’s hard for associates to interview clients and talk about retainers. Remember, people go to a law firm as their last resort.”

Students asked about the perception that law students are not adequately prepared for legal practice. Rob Currie, an associate professor at the Schulich School of Law, pointed out that large firms can no longer charge clients for work done by articling students.

“Client expectations have changed,” said Currie. “They may tell firms, ‘We don’t pay for anything less than a third-year associate.’ Some firms can’t afford to train as many associates as they used to.”

Christine Doucet, a partner at McGinty Doucet Walker, described the three key skills needed to be a lawyer as problem solving, communication, and file management. She suggests students take advantage of various opportunities within law schools like moot competitions and clinical courses to gain the practical experience.

“The most rewarding thing I did in law school was compete in the Sopinka moot,” she said. “I learned advocacy skills and made relationships that helped me in my career.”

Overall, students will have to decide what direction to take in their career.

“It’s very important to take responsibility for your own education,” said Heather Oke, a lawyer from the Nova Scotia Department of Justice. “Law school gives you lots options for what you want to do. Get some practical experience, figure out who you are and what you want to do.”

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