The future of law school

By: February 26, 2010

Changes to the Canadian Common Law Degree want to ensure law students are professionally prepared

Do Canadian law schools adequately prepare students for the realities of the legal profession?

Changes coming to the Canadian Common Law Degree took a step towards implementation yesterday, as Convocation approved a final report by the national task force charged with reviewing law degree requirements.

At the heart of the report is the recommended establishment of a national standard of competencies for all law students, “to be expressed in terms of competencies in basic skills, awareness of appropriate ethical values and core legal knowledge that law students can reasonably be expected to have acquired during the academic component of their education.”

Included in these competencies would be a “stand-alone ethics and professionalism course for each student who seeks entry to a bar admission program,” the only specific course the report would impose upon law schools. In addition, law students would have to demonstrate research, problem-solving and communications skills, plus show that they’ve acquired comprehensive knowledge of public and private law principles — from constitutional and criminal law to contracts, torts and property law.

Although the resolution passed by a wide margin, support was not unanimous. Constance Backhouse spoke passionately in opposition to the report’s recommendations. “The Federation’s approach to mandatory competencies is out of step with legal education,” she said, as evidenced by the fact that all six of Ontario’s law deans requested that the Law Society not endorse the report.

Backhouse expressed concern about how a new list of competencies would affect some of the less mainstream law school courses. “The social justice curriculum will suffer if this report is implemented,” she said. “The social justice courses which are currently taught as electives with small numbers will see their numbers fall further as law students fill their timetable with more competencies.”

Paul Schabas rose after Backhouse and spoke in support of her concerns, calling her comments “quite compelling” and admitting that she had persuaded him to vote against the report, which he later did.

Christopher Bredt argued that the proposed changes will not have the desired effect of better preparing lawyers for the realities of the profession, and suggested that a different approach was needed. “You can tell the law schools what to do, but we’ve all been to law school,” he said. “The most effective way to send guidelines to the law schools is to have a tough bar admissions process.”

A (gigantic) PDF of the report is available on the Law Society’s website.

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