Harry W. Arthurs, renowned Canadian labour lawyer and law professor, spoke to the University of Alberta Faculty of Law about the future of law schools and legal education in Canada in his address titled “The Future of Legal Education: Three Visions and a Prediction.”
Arthurs begins by outlining differing views of the core function of law school, namely the production of “practice-ready lawyers”, of “tomorrow’s lawyers”, and of being a leader in the “creation and transformation of legal knowledge, legal practice, and the legal system.”
From this address there are several points I would like to comment on. First, Arthurs strongly critiques the view that law schools should be producing “practice-ready” lawyers, assuming that “practice-ready” equates to omni-competent. As the legal field is highly specialized and stratified, Arthurs suggests that no law student will ever be “practice-ready” upon graduation from law school. While I agree with the assessment that no law student (or lawyer for that matter) will ever possess all of the substantive knowledge to be competent in every legal field, I disagree that is what is necessary to be ready for practice. While an understanding of general legal principles and substantive law are required competencies in one’s practice, they are attainable when one possesses the appropriate skills listed in Chapter 3 of the Code of Professional Conduct for BC (i.e. legal research, analysis, application of the law to the relevant facts, writing and drafting, problem solving, etc.). It is my opinion that the possession of these skills and competencies is what makes one “ready” for practice. In addition, I believe that law school is exactly the place where we should be taught these skills.
Arthurs goes on to argue that skills-based training is not enough to prepare students for legal practice, and a “preparation for practice” based curriculum is far inferior to one that emphasizes “thinking skills, theory and inter-disciplinarity”. While intellectual ability is certainly a coveted attribute, it must be applied practically to accomplish anything. Even Arthurs agrees that lawyers must “think like human beings” to avoid harming “themselves, their clients, the reputation of the bar and the effectiveness of the legal system.” Lawyers need to be relevant, relatable, and able to apply their intellectual training practically. It is my opinion that including some form of skills-based training in law schools helps accomplish that.
Finally, I would like to address Arthurs’ proposals regarding changes to the structure of law school. He proposes a model in which general practitioners can obtain a “stripped-down two-year ‘basic’ degree”, and “higher level lawyers” would take a four year enhanced degree. Arthurs’ argues that this would save time and money for general practitioners while fitting the diverse needs of students wishing to practice in more specialized fields. While this restructuring surely has its benefits, I suggest that it might have adverse affects on “access to justice”, an increasing problem. Creating a hierarchy of lawyers may decrease costs to individuals with basic legal problems, but may simultaneously increase the divide between litigants who can afford high-level lawyers. In other words, this hierarchy has potential to further the gap between those who can afford specialized legal services and those that cannot.
In addition, I wonder as to how these changes might impact the servicing of small, rural communities. These communities are already underserved, and those that do set up practice in these areas are typically general practitioners. Why would we make it harder on them to serve their communities by limiting their scope of practice? Canadians are already abandoning legal problems that they cannot afford to address; wouldn’t these changes only exacerbate this problem for rural individuals that would typically only engage with general practitioners?
Arthurs is certainly correct to say there are many changes in store for Canada’s legal paradigm. Subsequent changes to the way we educate future lawyers will certainly be more necessary than ever if lawyers are to remain relevant in society. More than anything, I believe Arthurs is correct to suggest law schools must prepare their students “to think like lawyers, to contextualize and critically evaluate their legal experiences, to adapt to change and, especially, to learn how to learn”. A law student with that education must certainly be “practice-ready”.