Ryerson’s Law School Proposal: Gaps in Legal Education

This is the second part of a two-part series on Ryerson University’s application to found a new law school in Canada. Part 1 provides an argument for why Ryerson should not be granted approval for a law school based on the current market. Part 2 highlights some of the ways in which Ryerson’s application contributes innovative ideas that could potentially revolutionize the way in which legal education is taught. It also highlights how Ryerson’s application exposes some of the gaps in current models of legal education.

Last month I addressed why I thought it would be unwise to grant Ryerson University’s proposal to gain a JD program and a new law school. While I disagree that Canada, especially Ontario, needs another law school, the Ryerson letter of intent exposes some critical gaps in current legal education as well as presents some innovative ideas that traditional law schools should consider adopting. For this article, I draw from several personal experiences based on my legal education at Osgoode Hall Law School and the University of Ottawa. I understand that this is a controversial topic, so I welcome others to share their alternative viewpoints in the comments below.

Ultimately, Ryerson argues that it should have a new law school, disregarding the current legal job market, because there is a societal need for new forms of legal training. What the proposal fails to consider is the ability of traditional law schools to innovate and that some of Ryerson’s “innovative ideas”have already been incorporated. With that being said, there are some great ideas worth emphasizing, such as more attention to real life simulations, a broad introduction into legal entrepreneurship, more technology and legal data skills, as well as methods of assessment other than 100% exams.

Ryerson’s Proposals:

Legal Professional Interaction

Throughout the proposal, Ryerson highlights how important it is for students to interact with legal practitioners at the early stages of their education. While I think this idea is a valuable networking opportunity and a chance to teach students the real-life implications of the materials they are studying, I believe an academic researcher who is the leader in his or her field should be just as sought after as someone with “real world”experience. What matters to me as a student is that the professor can teach and has a genuine passion to benefit his or her students.

My own experience being taught by practicing lawyers (within a “traditional”law school) has been mixed. Some “professional”teachers offered great war-stories and highlighted what material a student would actually need to know in real-world practice. However, others have been too preoccupied by their professional responsibilities to put forward a coherent lesson plan and have made a habit of going off onto tangents about unrelated cases. Similarly, I have had good and bad teachers from “academia”— though I always love hearing about novel research being done in my field of interest.

I would note that for the most part I believe that law schools, especially the more established ones, have developed solid faculty recruitment plans and have put in place systems for consistent teacher evaluations.

i) Co-Teaching between Faculty and Practitioners

To expand perspectives, Ryerson suggests co-teaching between faculty and practitioners. Their plan would essentially give students two professors in each class. While I have been in a great class with two professors, I have more frequently found that pairs of teachers tend to “double teach”materials, as communication between the professors about what was covered can never be perfect. Moreover, the decreased in-class interaction a student has with each teacher, by splitting their interaction between two instructors, may impact the teacher/professor bonds that are critical for navigating first year.

ii) Formal Mentorship

To compensate for decreased interaction, the professors at Ryerson would have a “formal mentorship role.”The proposal even muses about creating mandatory meetings for all students with their mentors. I think it is helpful to have someone guide you through the legal field. While this support would certainly help students, I question whether it is essential such as to make it mandatory and question the degree of paternalism it invites.

Group Work and Real-life Simulations

On a related note, the proposed curriculum stresses group work and real-world applications (for example, a simulated case file from start to finish, complete with role-playing). I believe this would be an invaluable learning experience. My only concern, and it is a minor one, is how a large proportion of group work would factor into an industry that requires competitive grading.

One of Ryerson’s interesting ideas is to require students to develop a business plan for a simulated firm, which includes looking at the operation and marketing of a law firm. This simulation would also investigate how to incorporate access to justice within the firm. This level of ingenuity presents an exciting learning opportunity. Some traditional law schools do offer a legal entrepreneurship class, however it is segregated from the core curriculum. The prospect of greater emphasis in the area legal entrepreneurship is an exciting step in the right direction.

Mandatory Intensive Placements

In the Ryerson law program, all students would be required to take an intensive practice element (e.g. law clinic experience, pro bono placement, internship). While I agree with Ryerson’s statement that the best legal education blends theory and practice and that these opportunities are great for students, I question whether adding more cheap and even free labour to the legal market will only further exacerbate the difficulty articling students are facing in not being able to find (even unpaid) employment.

I participated in an internship program at UOttawa where I agreed to work for free in exchange for a credit. While it was an incredible, door-opening experience that I strongly advocate for expanding to traditional schools, it does not change the fact that it took me over 2 months to find a placement. The university’s law clinic was full and extremely competitive to enter. Many charity organizations wanted someone with law experience or did not have enough law work for students. All the big law firms were subject to strict recruitment guidelines. The only alternative was to work an unpaid internship  at a small firm, where they are unlikely to have the resources to take on one student, nevermind an entire program.

Additional Mandatory Competencies

The detailed, proposed curriculum sets out new mandatory courses that are typically treated as electives in other schools: business of lawyering, tax, wills and estates (usually compressed into a property law class), evidence, international private law and Indigenous law. While I believe these courses are extremely useful to students, when made mandatory they take away from student electives and a chance to further specialize in an area of law.

Shift Away from Traditional 12 Week Lecture Programs

Ryerson says its model would shift away from traditional 12 week law courses. I note that UOttawa has experimented with this model, creating a January semester where students only take a single intensive course for the month. At UOttawa, I noticed the content in the February to April course was a little rushed and the students were deprived of the opportunity to delve deeper into concepts and theory. I did, however, find January gave me a much-needed break. In law school, mental health is a big issue and the ability to have a month focusing solely on a single topic⎯with breaks in-between the semesters⎯really helped me refocus and perform at a higher level in second semester.

i) Intensive Bootcamps

The letter advocates for all semesters, with the exception of the professional placement seminar, to begin with a compulsory one-week “bootcamp.” The topic of the first semester would be things such as career planning and networking. In the second semester, the topic would be legal technology such as data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and quantitative legal prediction (QLP). The third semester would focus on accounting and financial analysis, and finally, The fourth semester would be devoted to emotional/cultural quotients.

I strongly agree that all the above-listed topics should be taught in law school and that traditional law schools have not sufficiently integrated these skills into their general programs. Having come from a statistics background, I am highly interested in taking a course in artificial intelligence and the law. However, drawing from that same background, I question whether these complex topics can be taught in a single week.

ii) A Four Semester Model?

It was not made clear in the proposal, but I believe that Ryerson is advocating for four short semesters within a single school year. I am unsure how the core, fundamental basics of some legal fields could be taught in these compressed time frames.

iii) Less Elective Courses

The letter states that due to Ryerson’s proposed additions to mandatory competencies, only one semester out of the five (confusing me about the number of semesters within a year) would be an elective course. Later in the proposal, it indicates that it wouldn’t be until third year until students would be exposed to four elective courses.

Multiple Assessments

Ryerson believes that students should be assessed on their competencies in different ways than by 100% exam. I wholeheartedly agree with this statement.

More Technology in Law Schools

While technology is rapidly expanding in traditional law schools, I find there are few standalone courses dedicated to learning complex legal technologies in law school. Sure, I was shown how to use Quicklaw, CanLII and Westlaw, but I was never shown anything beyond that. The letter also stresses learning cloud based management tools, real estate title search software and new technology for virtual file simulations. I learned contract law from renowned robotics law expert Ian Kerr, and while he unconventionally incorporated the topic of artificial intelligence programs into reading contracts, there was never an opportunity to get hands-on experience with that technology.

Access to Justice and Enhancing Diverse Individual Access to Legal Education

The Ryerson proposal states that the school would have a strong commitment to access to justice and would accept many racial, ethno-cultural and linguistic minorities to their school. Having studied at both Osgoode and UOttawa, I would just like to comment that, while there is certainly ground to be made in this area, this is something that many traditional schools are incorporating.

Final Thoughts

Ryerson has shown there are gaps in the legal market and it has an innovative method of teaching planned. I believe traditional law schools have a lot to learn from Ryerson’s proposal.

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