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Innovative law school could fill void, experts say

Thursday, December 08, 2016 @ 7:00 PM | By Kim Arnott


On the heels of a proposal by Ryerson University to establish a new Toronto law school, a provincial report calculates that Ontario will graduate 1.6 new lawyers for every new practising position over the next decade.

But the Ryerson plan isn’t for a traditional law school, emphasizes spokesman Chris Bentley.

Rather, he says, it’s an innovative approach to training lawyers that could create new jobs in the profession while meeting the needs of people and businesses that cannot currently access legal services.

“Every study out there identifies billions of dollars in unmet legal needs — people with legal problems who don’t go to lawyers,” says Bentley, executive director of the university’s Legal Innovation Zone and Law Practice Program (LPP).

“If you train people differently to deliver the advice that’s required in different ways then you can fulfil that need.”

Rather than a traditional law curriculum delivered through lecture-based courses, Ryerson envisions training students through mentored hands-on group activities that emphasize the use of technology, problem-solving skills and communication.

The program would also include a mandatory intensive practice element, such as a law clinic placement, pro bono stint or internship.

“We will take a more innovative approach to training people so they’re able to think creatively and innovatively about how they serve their legal consumers,” says Bentley.

In a letter of intent released in October, the school outlines its plan for a doctor of law program that will integrate teaching by legal practitioners, include week-long “boot camps” focusing on topics ranging from networking to legal technology to social innovation and place students into mock “law firms” under the management of mentors.

Ryerson’s “deliberately designed” alternative curriculum earns praise from Katie Sykes, an assistant law professor at Thompson Rivers University who teaches a course called lawyering in the 21st century.

“I think legal education has become almost willfully divorced from what we’re sending people out to do in the world,” she says. “And kind of almost proud of it.”

But the case method, which Canadian law schools have been relying on to teach law students since the 19th century, does little to prepare students for practice, particularly in a rapidly changing world, Sykes says. “I think change is long overdue and I really admire what Ryerson has put together.

“It’s a mindset that’s open to harnessing the power of technology for delivery of legal services instead of just wishing it would go away.”

Ryerson has a well-established philosophy of “seeking innovative approaches to social problems,” says Bentley, pointing to the 2015 establishment of the Legal Innovation Zone, a law technology incubator.

The university’s pilot LPP offers students an alternative route to licensing in the face of an increasing shortage of articling positions.

Elements from both of those initiatives are intended to be incorporated into the law school’s curriculum.

Marni Dicker, executive vice-president and general counsel with Infrastructure Ontario, acts as a mentor with the LPP. She has also taken on 66 LPP students for practical experience terms over the last three years.

She says Ryerson’s approach to experiential learning is effective in preparing students for the workplace and supports the university’s quest to teach future law students.

“I think they have a great business case for the creation of a different kind of law school.”

The bid still requires internal approval, with the university’s senate expected to consider it next May.

If it clears that hurdle, the law school will also need to be accredited by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC), as well as receive approval for funding from the provincial government.

The letter of intent suggests the school could be launched by September 2018.

However, the province’s existing law schools are already pumping out more graduates than the market can absorb, according to a report commissioned by the government’s Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

“The cumulative number of law graduates [both from Ontario and outside Ontario] between 2015 and 2025 is expected to total approximately 29,500, exceeding new practising positions by close to 16,800,” notes the Labour Market Trends and Outlooks for Regulated Professions in Ontario report released in November.

Authored by PRISM Economics and Analysis, the report predicts future graduates will “face greater competition for fewer articling positions and falling earnings; they will increasingly need to leverage their law degree to seek employment outside the legal profession.”

But the report also echoes Bentley’s comments with a suggestion that technology, innovation and cultural shifts may allow new graduates to create their own jobs.

Supply and demand in the legal profession is certain to be a hot topic as the LSUC launches a comprehensive review of licensing standards for new lawyers.

Approved by benchers at November’s convocation, the review will be “a wide-ranging and long-term review of the entire process,” promises Peter Wardle, chair of the professional development and competence (PDC) committee.

He added that the need for a broad-ranging look at licensing became evident in recent months, after the committee received extensive feedback on a recommendation to cancel the LPP at the end of its three-year term in 2017.

As a result, the LPP has been granted a two-year extension.

“We really need to look at the big picture and not tinker, and we don’t want to make small decisions now that will affect the long-term review,” Wardle told the law society’s governors.

During November’s meeting, a number of benchers offered their own thoughts on what ought to be done about licensing. Suggestions ranged from the elimination of articling, to the creation of limited licences.

But bencher Christopher Bredt, a partner at BLG, noted that the practising bar will always argue for limiting the numbers of incoming lawyers, while law students will argue for the elimination of barriers to being called to the bar.

“I urge the committee as they move forward to ensure they are guided by the public interest and not necessarily the interest of our stakeholders,” he said.

A plan for undertaking the licensing review will be developed by the PDC committee and brought to convocation in early 2017.

But Bentley notes that the conversation around licensing will take place in a world that is fast moving, tech-savvy and innovative and in a profession likely to see continued technological disruption.

“I think Ontario misses out on the jobs opportunity when we don’t encourage innovation in the law.

“These innovations are going to come from somebody, somewhere. Why not in Ontario?”