McGill panel explores the future of legal education

At least 150 lawyers and law students braved the snow last night to hear a panel of eminent jurists discuss the future of legal education, at McGill University’s Faculty of Law.

McGill panel explores the future of legal education
The McGill panellists from left to right: Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré, Jean-François Gaudreault-DesBiens, Kim Thomassin, Shahir Guindi and Louise Otis.

At least 150 lawyers and law students braved the snow last night to hear a panel of eminent jurists discuss the future of legal education, at McGill University’s Faculty of Law.

“The topic we will consider today has never been more important for our profession,” said Neil Sternthal, managing director of Legal – Canada/Australia/New Zealand for Thomson Reuters (publisher of Legal Feeds), which sponsored the event, in his introductory remarks.

That is due, he said, “to the pace of change caused by globalization, the disaggregation of legal services, the emergence of alternative legal service providers [and] disruptive technologies . . . so to prepare lawyers for the future needs of the profession is of critical importance. Because what we do as lawyers supports the rule of law, affecting not only those clients we serve but also society.”

McGill Law dean Robert Leckey moderated the panel of jurists: Jean-François Gaudreault-DesBiens, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the Université de Montréal; Shahir Guindi, national co-chairman of Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP; Louise Otis, a civil and commercial mediator and arbitrator and an adjunct professor at McGill’s Faculty of Law and a former judge on the Quebec Court of Appeal; Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré, a retired judge of the Court of Quebec and a former dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Windsor; and Kim Thomassin, Executive Vice-President, Legal Affairs and Secretariat for the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec.

Dean Leckey asked the panellists what’s needed to be a successful lawyer. The consensus was that both practical training as well as diversity are important: diversity in one’s personal and educational background and in the sexual and racial makeup of the profession.

Guindi recounted how a student had asked him what she should do to prepare for a successful legal career. Should she work in a law firm one summer after her first year? No, said Guindi. “Run away from a law firm until you have to be there!” Prospective lawyers, he said, needed to distinguish themselves and first “do missionary work in Africa, travel the world, climb Machu Picchu [but] bring something to the table that the rest of your peers don’t have.” What sets one apart is bringing something other than knowledge of the law to the table; “a perspective beyond just law is what law schools are missing.”

An undergraduate education prior to law school is also important in rounding out a legal student, he said. Gaudreault-DesBiens agreed that law students were helped by being integrated into multi-disciplinary environments. Otis, however, noted that one of her students, who had come directly from a Quebec CEGEP, had “the best legal mind I have seen in my life!” Older students may also bring important experience with them from the workforce, Westmoreland-Traoré noted.

Thomassin, who previously worked for McCarthy Tétrault LLP and was managing partner of MT Quebec, agreed that “to become a trusted advisor, you need to have broader experience.” But, she said, students also need more practical training to be lawyers, and she recommended there be “a greater dialogue” between law firms and law schools, with the firms sponsoring special programs such as drafting skills. Being multilingual and proficient in the new technologies was also important, she added.

And although lawyers will benefit from the use of artificial technology in their practices, Guindi noted that in the past it was junior lawyers who poured over documents and contracts in performing due diligence and so developed their expertise in legal terminology and more. “So, a year or two of practical learning have been eliminated from the lawyer’s development. That’s a gap that needs to be filled.”

Another gap in today’s legal training is in international law, said Otis, which is important in today’s global economy. Such training would assist young lawyers in appearing before international tribunals, for example. Negotiation and the drafting of contracts is also important, she said, citing large international contracts such as the type that Quebec theatrical company Cirque du Soleil must negotiate.

And “law firms are now competing with internal legal departments that are sophisticated,” said Guindi. “Project management, CRM [customer relationship management systems] and artificial intelligence; there needs to be a course on the business of law,” and not only courses on the law itself.

One lawyer in attendance noted the ability of students to gain more practical experience through working at legal clinics such as Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto, a legal aid clinic established by York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in the 1970s. Windsor’s Faculty of Law had established a similar clinic, and this would also serve access to justice. However, Gaudreault-DesBiens noted that there is no equivalent funding model in Quebec to allow law schools to do this.

However, Westmoreland-Traoré noted that a graduate from Windsor Law had established a foundation for students at the law school to come to Toronto for an internship, and some of that firm’s lawyers would give courses at Windsor that would be complementary to the internships at the firms. A voluntary program such as this would provide practical experience to students, even if outside of a clinical context. Otis also recommended internships at international organizations.

Westmoreland-Traoré also noted that as more people are now representing themselves in court, “there may be a role for graduates from law school in assisting those who are unrepresented,” whether their cases are related to family law, personal injury or other areas.

Asked about women in the profession today by another lawyer in attendance, Thomassin said that when she left her law firm to work in-house, “I felt I was abandoning my female colleagues. But we have seen progress,” she said, citing a firm’s request to its legal providers asking them to produce their diversity statistics on their “use of women.”

“I think we have a responsibility [as lawyers] to be diverse,” she said.

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