Ian Holloway, UCalgary law's dean, on why he put aside tradition to design a new curriculum

As his deanship’s end approaches, Holloway reflects on his role in pushing the legal academy forward

Ian Holloway, UCalgary law's dean, on why he put aside tradition to design a new curriculum
Ian Holloway

Ian Holloway is a history buff, but he is no traditionalist. Holloway’s term as the dean of UCalgary Law ends in June, and as the longest-serving law dean in North America, he has spent his career pushing for innovation in the legal academy.

But as a leading legal history scholar, he has criticized law schools with a deep knowledge of the institutions he has served. “I'm very keen on history, and I don't believe you can understand the world as it is today unless you understand the world as it was,” he says.

Beginning in the law

Holloway did not come from a professional family, having never met a lawyer before he went to law school and being the second person in his family to finish high school. “My beginning in law school was very bumpy academically. But once I learned how to do it, I did quite well.”

After graduating from law school, Holloway joined what became McInnes Cooper. He practised labour and employment law and appeared in every court level, including the Supreme Court of Canada, which he says gave him “the professional confidence to carry myself as a lawyer.”  

Yet an unexpected tragedy – his mother’s death after routine surgery – caused him to rethink his career. Holloway left McInnes Cooper and travelled to England to reflect. He visited the courts and Parliament, reigniting his passion for the law.

“I wasn't sure what I wanted to do precisely, but I didn't want to turn my back on the law altogether. So, I decided to do an LLM.”

Holloway accepted an offer at the University of California at Berkeley, where one of his professors told him that “interesting things are going to happen in the Asia Pacific region.”

So, he then packed his bags for Australia, where he enrolled in a PhD program. He soon began teaching and eventually became the associate dean at the Australian National University.

“The associate dean had to step down very quickly [and] unexpectedly. And the dean came to me and said, ‘Look, I need you. And I had no aspirations to it.”

Once he settled in Australia, Holloway met his now-wife, became an Australian citizen, and served in the Australian Navy.

University of Western Ontario

Holloway eventually returned to Canada in 2000 when he was offered the deanship at the University of Western Ontario’s law school.

He says his outsider status in Canada’s legal academy made him attractive to the search committee. “When I was gone from Canada, the Canadian legal academy had gone through a protracted period of heightened tension…The fact that I had no connections with the school was one of my chief qualifications for the job because I couldn't be identified with one party or another.”

He pushed for closer ties with the law firms that employed most law graduates – which no doubt angered some of his colleagues who saw law school as more of an academic than a professional school.

Yet Holloway is unapologetic about his focus on the practicalities of his students’ careers.

“Our placement rate went up; our quality of students went up. It was still a very [Greater Toronto Area]-focused school, and some people were quite critical of me for that, and maybe properly so, but that was the game I was trying to play.”

University of Calgary

When Holloway’s term was nearing its end at Western, he was invited by the University of Calgary to advise its dean search committee, but the committee ended up offering him the job.

Holloway then focused his energy on understanding the history of his new law school, which meant immersing himself “in the minutes of faculty council meetings, going back to the very beginning.”

He realized that since its founding, UCalgary saw itself as a rival to its sister law school in the province, Edmonton’s University of Alberta.

“U of A had a 60-year head start on us, and they'll always have a 60-year head start. So, if we try to … emulate what they're doing [we] will always be second fiddle.”

Calgary curriculum

So, Holloway decided his role would be to help UCalgary chart a different course. He and a team of fellow academics developed what they called the “Calgary curriculum.”

This curriculum represented a conscious renunciation of the standard philosophy underpinning Canadian legal education. “Our mission is to prepare students for the profession they're joining, not the one we joined,” Holloway says.

This approach explicitly set aside what most law schools were doing. “From 1957 up to the turn of the century was a period of homogenization in Canadian legal education. All the law schools were becoming more and more alike. The Calgary curriculum represents a conscious decision to disavow all of that philosophy. We believe that the dichotomy between theory and skills is a false dichotomy.”

While Holloway uses a historian’s lens to critique legal education, he also sounds like a business leader when citing the experimentation, iteration and empirical evidence underpinning the new approach.

“One of the things that brain science teaches us, and it's unequivocal, is that adults learn best when they have the ability, metaphorically, to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty working with ideas.”

Holloway admits his law school has made many mistakes along the way but notes that other law schools are now moving in the same direction.

“We're starting to see it being emulated across the country. And I don't say that in a boastful way, just in a descriptive way. I think more and more schools are embracing, to use the language of the day,… experiential learning.”

He also admits that the true evidence that this approach is effective will not emerge immediately. “If you were to ask me, is it working?.. The honest answer is, we will know in a generation.”

Longest-serving dean

While Holloway enjoys citing shorter-term statistics about his law school’s success, such as its popularity with applicants and placement rates, he is also self-effacing about his long tenure in legal academics.

“There's a rule of thumb in the dean world… for every year you're a dean, you alienate 10 percent of the constituency. So, I'm on my second go-round for some of my colleagues in terms of alienation.”

Yet jokes aside, Holloway is proud of what he and his colleagues in the legal academy have accomplished. The history of legal academics in Canada, Holloway says, shows steady improvements nationwide despite the challenges.

“I believe every Canadian law school today is better than any Canadian law school was 30 years ago. And I really believe that.”

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