Ryerson, reform and the pessimistic lawyer

Negativity is the governing professional disposition in which a great experiment in Canadian legal education is about to take place. That is the establishment of a degree-granting law school at Ryerson University.

Ian Holloway

There is an old joke in which a client accuses his lawyer of being too pessimistic.

“I’m not a pessimist,” the lawyer replies. “I’m just a well-informed optimist.”

Like many of the better lawyer jokes, this one contains more than a kernel of insight — in this case, insight into how many of us respond reflexively to new ideas. We are trained — very well, I should add, thanks to the traditional system of legal education — to think critically and see the flaws in an argument. Indeed, after just a semester or so in law school, it becomes our ingrained professional instinct to tear ideas down. When Professor Charles Kingsfield uttered his money line in The Paper Chase — “You come in here with a skull full of mush. . . .  And if you survive, you’ll leave thinking like a lawyer” — that’s the point he was making.

It’s true that there are small knots of optimistic, “let’s give it a go” lawyers out there. I recently had the chance to speak to the Toronto Legal Innovators Round Table, and the excitement of an hour and a half in their company kept me energized all day. But the reality of our collective “Half full? Ha! The glass is almost always nearly empty!” disposition is apparent at every corner. I’m hardly the first to observe this (although I did write about it three years ago), but this is one of the reasons why we’re so prone to depression and substance abuse. In a word, we’re not a happy or constructive lot. United States Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo captured it pithily, when he said, “As to being happy, I fear that happiness isn’t in my line.”

So, negativity is the governing professional disposition in which a great experiment in Canadian legal education is about to take place. That is the establishment of a degree-granting law school at Ryerson University. What it is proposing to do could be among the most disruptive acts in Canadian legal education since the move of the Osgoode Hall Law School from the Law Society of Upper Canada to York University in 1965. That is because it was given permission by the Law Society of Ontario to incorporate into the JD curriculum what is known as the “integrated practice curriculum,” which will replace the need for articling.

Ryerson won’t be the first IPC-based law school in Canada — that honour goes to Lakehead University. But what makes the Ryerson move especially significant is that it will be building upon a pan-university ethos of experiential education. Moreover, it has been running the Law Practice Program for a few years, so it has a world-class professional finishing program already in the can. Oh — and Ryerson is located at Yonge and Dundas, rather than in the Port Arthur section of Thunder Bay, Ont.

Ryerson’s promise — though as with all things, the proof of the pudding will ultimately be in the tasting — is to attempt to be a truly disruptive force in legal education. It isn’t trying to be just another law school. Rather, it wants to help define a new standard of professional education, much in the way that the Calgary and McMaster medical schools did in MD education 50 years ago. Its plans include courses co-taught by professors and practitioners, as well as compulsory instruction in things such as business skills, coding and emotional intelligence. Second- and third-year students will be organized into “firms” and work together to solve simulations of real-life legal problems. And Ryerson will do it without dumbing down the curriculum or, even worse, turning the place into a “trade school.” Perhaps our greatest insecurity as law professors is to be accused of pandering to vocational education. But if you read Ryerson’s law school proposal (full disclosure, it pays credit to us at Calgary for paving its way), you will see that its plans are grounded solidly in learning science. 

On paper, it’s impressive stuff. Of course, Ryerson will stumble and make mistakes. And the program will have to evolve as it goes. But if it gets off to a good start, it will inject competitive pressure among the other Ontario law schools, which one assumes will then generate competitive pressure across the country. Given the systemic defects in the articling model (which I believe to be patent), it will be challenging for the rest of us to somehow justify four years of legal education when a GTA school is doing it in three. This is a prospect that makes law deans — this one, anyway — nervous. 

But Ryerson should be nervous, too. For one thing, it’s not a certainty that the legal profession, whose entry system is built around the notion of a year-long job interview, will buy into it. And if the profession doesn’t, then Ryerson graduates may find themselves in the same ridiculous situation as some Lakehead graduates of opting to article even though they don’t have to do so. 

Then there is the issue of the business model. That is something that continues to plague the Law Practice Program. Considered systemically, the LPP educational model is superior in almost every way to articling. But it is very costly, and without subsidies from the Law Society of Ontario, it is not clear that it would be sustainable. Now, the Government of Ontario has indicated that not only will Ryerson Law not receive any public funding but Ryerson law students won’t be eligible for student aid. Ryerson says it has developed a business model that allows it to operate notwithstanding this — and to charge less than both Toronto and Osgoode. That is hopeful, but . . . pudding meet tasting. 

For these reasons and others, now that it has set out on this journey, Ryerson has to succeed. Failure will be a costly option —not just for the school but for everyone who cares about reform. If it does fail, the pessimists will crow and the cause of innovation in legal education will be set back who knows for how long? 

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