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Legal education could do with more competition

Speaker's Corner

The Canadian law degree, as we know it, needs to be seriously re-thought, and a future Ryerson law school might be just the kind of disruption our legal education market needs.

The crux of any opposition to approving Ryerson’s new enterprise was that the Law Society of Ontario should not now be allowing new law schools — not when fewer and fewer debt-laden licensing candidates find articles, not when more and more we find that racialized minorities bear the brunt of such exclusion. These are valid concerns. Understandably, many hesitate to rely on the largely untested Law Practice Program to provide the requisite leg up we would want for our new calls. Still, whatever the woes of lawyer licensing in the coming few years, we know we have a safety net in the LPP.

In any event, such policy considerations are immaterial to the approval decision per se. The LSO exists primarily to ensure the professional competence of those licensed, not the professional success of those seeking licensure. Fortunately, these two values go hand in hand here. Irrespective of that narrow question before the LSO, Ryerson Law has the potential to bolster the profession on both fronts. And the greater danger would have been in ignoring this opportunity to incentivize existing law schools to adapt to a changing profession.

It’s almost banal to point out the shifting technological landscape underlying our industry. Machine-learning software and artificial intelligence can outperform humans in accuracy and speed at a growing number of legal tasks.

Once more widely available, AI mechanization will begin to become a standard for professional diligence. The AI earthquake will rock law practice for everyone, but especially the junior lawyers often saddled with mechanical tasks.

Legal education can adapt in at least two ways. First, law schools should teach the human elements of law, those not soon supplanted by AI. Second, law schools should teach legal tech. Ryerson Law is competition, hopefully eliciting some response.

Competition can be good, I’m told. When Land Rover’s Range Rover entered the North American car market, the entry prompted Ford to build the Explorer, which became one of Ford’s most successful models. So goes the parable from that one episode of The West Wing. You see, of course, I was never really taught business. Law programs include business law but not law business.

No person-to-person part of private practice is emphasized in law school. Yes, some schools have a token required ADR course. Sometimes, interviewing and counselling is available as an elective. Marketing? Business development? Entrepreneurship? They are nowhere to be found in any law school’s academic calendar.

These human elements of practice are what differentiate us from automated legal service providers. No computer can engage with a client’s interests between the lines of their emails. No computer can shake a hand. No computer can build rapport — not yet, anyway.

Such training has implications broader than just adaptation to new technology. Underrepresented minorities in law school, the least likely to have family connections in law practice, could have better exposure to law practitioner culture and be better acclimated to the legal job market. Junior lawyers could be better prepared to found or develop their own practices and better serve underserved communities.

Our law graduates should also be able to use and capitalize on legal tech. If law schools prioritized legal tech training, young lawyers could be the first to adopt time- and cost-saving technology and outperform the outmoded practices.

Our profession’s concerns in equality, access to justice and law graduate marketability could all be ameliorated — if legal education contemplated law graduates entering law practice. In legal academic culture, there is a false dichotomy between training legal thinkers and producing practice-ready lawyers. In a three-year program, law schools can do both, and they should do better.

A nascent law faculty comes with no entrenched or stagnant culture, and that’s why Ryerson Law is good news. As a new entrant in legal education, Ryerson will develop its curriculum de novo. What’s more, Ryerson expressly brings a mission of advancing innovation and technology in its law school. Other law schools will follow suit or fall behind. At least, I hope, they’ll be prompted to more purposefully re-examine their own curricula. Maybe, they’ll develop their own Ford Explorer.

I note one caveat, as there’s a missing piece. Law school applicants should be given the metrics to make an informed decision. Without transparency in outcomes, we risk our universities exploiting students for an economic cushion, in particular where law faculties’ tuition revenue is diverted to finance non-law programs.

To the extent that universities expound career outcomes in selling their law degrees, such representations should be evidenced by empirical data.

For example, Ontario colleges are required to publicize key performance indicators for their programs: graduate satisfaction, student satisfaction, employer satisfaction, employment rate and graduation rate. These data are gathered by an independent research firm. Ontario law schools should be required to do the same. This kind of accountability should focus law schools’ attention.

I might be wrong about Ryerson Law, and a future JD from any Ontario school might become an escalator to nowhere. But, in that case, prospective law students should really be told before they get on.

Fred Wu is an intellectual property and technology lawyer, practising with a leading IP boutique in London, UK. He advises on tech rights and co-ordinates multi-jurisdictional patent litigation primarily serving the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors. He tweets about IP and tech law @effwu.

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