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Letter: Embrace Lakehead's innovations

|Written By Janet Whitehead

I have been following with interest the ongoing debate about how to best prepare lawyers to practise in the real world of law. In particular, I note the article dated Feb. 25 by Prof. Gus Van Harten of Osgoode Hall Law School in which he expresses a harsh opinion on the “Lakehead approach” to legal education.

Van Harten’s opinion relies on a number of implicit assumptions:

• It is impossible for any law school — Lakehead University or otherwise — to successfully combine a theoretical and practical approach to teaching law.

• The inclusion of practice-based content into a law degree curriculum somehow guarantees an inferior result.

• Practice-ready lawyers are somehow less ethical than their traditionally educated counterparts.

As a practicing lawyer and chairwoman of the County & District Law Presidents’ Association, I take some exception to these assumptions.

I appreciate that there is a wide divergence of opinion within the profession and indeed even among our own membership on how best to train lawyers and prepare them for practice.

However, we do know that in many parts of the country — particularly in smaller centres and among certain disadvantaged communities — there is a shortage of lawyers willing to practise, something that has far-reaching implications for access to justice in these communities.

So in Canada, we have this peculiar situation where a shortage of lawyers exists in one part of the market with an oversupply in other parts, as evidenced by the difficulty and pressure faced by many large firms such as Heenan Blaikie LLP. Yet our law schools continue to churn out graduates who are cultivated for the part of the job market that is shrinking.

In my view, the enhanced Lakehead curriculum approved by the Law Society of Upper Canada seeks to introduce practical elements to the curriculum that are in addition to and not instead of the usual three years of law school study. From what I have read and seen, Lakehead students will be required to work harder in a more intensive course of study to graduate. Further, no cogent evidence whatsoever is presented to support the conclusions that a focus on appropriately teaching the skills required for the practice of law will result in inferior, unethical lawyers.

I am a product of the articling system and an articling principal. However, a generation of lawyers has decried traditional legal education as inadequate preparation for the practice of law even with the benefits associated with articling. Our focus should be on striving to provide the education, skills, and training, in whatever manner works best, to new lawyers so that they are properly and competently prepared to meet the needs of the public.

As for the argument that these reforms to legal education and the training process will result in a glut of lawyers, lower fees, and inferior quality, I simply do not buy the correlation. How can better preparing lawyers to be successful in the practice of law — including the business side of running a practice — result in anything but better service, more innovation, and greater access to justice? The free market will decide who succeeds and who might find better opportunities in another profession, and those are decisions best left to the market and not the halls of academia.   

Lakehead dean Lee Stuesser and his faculty have a vision for how to better prepare law students to serve the public. We believe this vision will also result in lawyers ready and willing to take on the unique challenges of practising law in communities that are presently underserved. I appreciate that no one can guarantee at this point that the Lakehead experiment will be a success. But I applaud Stuesser for trying to find a new approach to an old problem.

Instead of sniping from the sidelines predicting what might happen in the future, let’s embrace the disruptive innovations underway and watch the results closely when the first class of graduates enters practice in three years time.

Janet Whitehead,

Chairwoman, County & District

Law Presidents’ Association,

Sarnia, Ont.

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