Last year Justice Abella, from the Supreme Court of Canada, gave a talk at Thompson Rivers University’s (TRU) law school. During the talk, she commented on how slow the practice of law is at evolving. She presented the analogy that if we were to take a surgeon from a hundred years ago and place them in an operating room today they would be lost. The practice of medicine has drastically changed to encompass the advancements and breakthroughs that have been made with science and technology. Justice Abella then went on to suggest that if you were to take a lawyer from a hundred years ago and place them in a courtroom today, they would need a bit of time to get caught up on the new rules of civil procedure but ultimately would be able to run a trial. I think this analogy speaks volumes as to how slow the legal profession has been at evolving and I contend that this issue is one that spreads across all facets of the practice of law. Moreover, law schools are a great starting point for which this problem could be addressed, yet little is being done.
Law schools are responsible for teaching and molding the minds of future lawyers, and yet for the most part they perpetuate outdated teaching methods. Of the law courses offered at TRU less than ten percent offer some sort of hands-on practical approach to teaching law. With that being said, none of those hands-on courses are black-letter-law courses nor are they required courses. Take the required courses of contracts law or civil procedures. A student can go a whole course learning about the tests and theoretical underpinnings of the law without ever learning how to apply it in the real world or have any practice drafting a legal document. Unfortunately, this is not an issue that is distinct to TRU Law; it is bolstered for the most part by all Canadian law schools.
Some may argue that articling is there to teach law students the practical aspects of the law. I would analogize that the articling process is similar to having taught someone the theory of how to swim and then throwing them off the deep end into water and demanding they swim. Of course, in British Columbia, articling students are assigned a principal as a sort of safeguard and a 10-week professional lawyer training course (PLTC) as a buoyancy aid, but it does not take away from the fact that there is a steep learning curve in the first few months of articles that law school does not prepare you for. There are also few mechanisms in place to assert the quality of education that is being received through the student’s articles. Comparing law to medicine, once again, medical students unlike law students are very well prepared by the time they graduate and do their residency. Medical students get a lot of hands-on experience throughout their medical education. Starting in their first year, medical students work with cadavers and then eventually work their way up to real patients as they do their supervised clinical clerkships in their third year. It would be absurd for medical students to learn exclusively through textbooks and lectures and only see their first patient upon starting their residency, yet for some reason it is well accepted that most law students will not draft a legal document or meet with a client until they graduate and start their articles.
I would suggest that law students are not only receptive to the idea of change but that they crave it. For example, this year at TRU’s student-run conference, the conference committee is taking the initiative to host a workshop on drafting corporate commercial contracts. I acknowledge that change is not likely to occur over night, however I believe this is a conversation that needs to be had. Modernizing how law is taught is the first step in the evolution of the legal practice.