To the class of 2012

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….and so once again, best wishes from all of us on the faculty to you, the class of 2012, as your journey through law school begins.

Before I yield the microphone, I have some news to share both with you and with my colleagues: that little lottery ticket I bought on a lark at the corner store last month turned out to be the sole winner of the $6.7 million jackpot. When the dean returns to her office, she’ll find my graceful letter of retirement on her desk.

And so, as this is my last official function here, and as I happen to be at the podium, I thought I would share with you, the class of 2012, my unfiltered thoughts about the legal education you’ve signed up for and the legal profession you’ve begun the process of entering.

Many of you have already approached me and other faculty members to ask about the job market for law graduates – as well you might, since every day brings news of fresh casualties from the Great De-leveraging. This is undoubtedly your primary concern ¬– a far cry from my first day of law classes 19 years ago, when our chief interest lay in finding out what downtown club was hosting the latest orientation event. We didn’t start thinking about jobs until our second year; I’d be surprised if anyone here hadn’t thought about jobs by your second day.

Of course, in my first year – it really wasn’t that long ago, you know — the classrooms weren’t named after law firms, and the career services office was a locked and unstaffed storeroom full of firm brochures halfway down a basement corridor. Most of the faculty considered employment for graduates a subject beneath their attention – at least, employment other than as a law professor or judge. This was to be expected, since few of them had more than a passing acquaintance with life at the private bar, and more than a handful had philosophical objections to market-based economies in general.

That’s all changed now, of course. For better or for worse – and I can find you advocates for both sides – the evolving consensus is that law schools should make at least some effort to help you secure jobs and/or to ensure you possess some skills and knowledge geared towards private law practice. The career services office is now in spacious quarters on the main floor and staffed with full-time paid professionals. On-campus interviews by law firms are an unremarkable fact of life. Practicing lawyers teach numerous courses – at some schools, in fact, these sessional lecturers outnumber the full-time faculty. No one could seriously question whether law schools have made an effort to accommodate your career interests.

But is it enough? Some people say we’ve only improved the extra-curriculars, and that the fundamental nature of the degree is still traditional to the point of being reactionary. Here in Ontario, the mandatory first-year curriculum hasn’t changed in more than 50 years – you’re going to learn the same subjects this year as your predecessors did when JFK was the president down south. We still teach you the underlying principles of law and make you read judicial decisions about the application of these principles to various legal problems – and we still don’t give you the opportunity to apply those principles yourselves. Aside from a few procedure and ethics courses, most schools don’t give you much of a glimpse into the life of a practicing lawyer. Call it a J.D. or an LL.B., but your average law degree remains more a liberal arts education than a graduate or professional instruction, and certainly is not preparation to practise law.

Or is it too much? Spend enough time as a law school professor, and the drift away from actual pedagogy and towards market-readiness training seems irrefutable. I’m not naïve enough to believe that you or your predecessors ever enrolled in law school for the sheer joy of learning Land Transactions or Business Associations. But the drive to generate nothing but the highest grades in order to generate the most job offers has now become relentless. Too many students now make the pursuit of an A the primary if not the only purpose of taking a law course.  If many faculty members have been too slow to recognize the professional purposes of a law degree, many students – and the law firms that eventually hire them – have been too quick to turn law school into a jurisprudential version of the college football season and draft, with too much attention focused on what comes after graduation, not before.

The increasingly uncomfortable truth, unfortunately, is that we law schools are stuck between these two extremes. To a growing extent, we are losing our sense of direction and purpose: neither fish nor fowl, neither institute of higher learning nor professional training college. I fear, in trying to be both, we have ended up being neither. Forced to hew to our longstanding structure by both faculty and tradition, but pulled hard the other way by the private bar and the realities of the legal marketplace, we have spent the last two decades missing an opportunity. With few exceptions, we have yet to take a stand and say, “This is what law school is for. This is the part we play in the legal community and our society.” What is the role of law schools in the 21st century? I don’t know, and I’m not sure most of my colleagues do either.

This is a serious problem for us, because these are times of great upheaval, and if we do not choose change, change will be chosen for us and applied to us. The private bar’s unhappiness with legal education has never been higher – and the bar’s presence in our daily lives and influence over our students’ attitudes have never been higher either. More law societies and state bars are re-examining their bar admissions processes, and I foresee a growing belief that if law schools will not give the bar the sort of new lawyer training it wants, the bar will provide that training on its own and bypass law schools altogether.

But this is also a serious problem for you, because you will graduate into a 21st-century profession with which you will be largely unfamiliar and for which you will be largely unprepared. To the extent we here at law school are well versed with the practicing bar, it is with a 20th-century practice model, one based on:

• exclusive control by lawyers over the selling of legal services,
• technology as a tool for the completion of tasks by lawyers, rather than as a means of performing those tasks alone,
• uninformed clients who exist in either a fiduciary or adversarial position with lawyers, and
• work recorded and billed, and lawyers rewarded, by the hour.

Each of these pillars of the legal profession we’ve always known is now buckling, along with many others (and that’s not to mention potential changes to ethics standards such as client conflicts of interest and non-lawyer ownership of firms). The nature of the practice of law is changing, and none of us here know what it’s changing into. What’s worse, neither do the people who’ll be administering your bar passage or the people who’ll be hiring you. There’s never been so much uncertainty around what the nature of a lawyer’s professional life will be like – and yet your legal education will be remarkably similar to the one I received in 1990. I’m not sure whether there’s anything we can do about that – but I sure do wish we would try.

My fervent parting wish, in fact, is that law schools would take the lead in figuring out what tomorrow’s legal profession will look like, so that we can prepare tomorrow’s legal professionals to lead it. There are some very honourable exceptions to this, but as a general rule, law schools have kept a low profile in, or even absented themselves from, the important discussions and debates taking place right now about the future of law. Lawyers, law firms and lawyers’ organizations are doing most of the talking, and although we are constantly referenced in these discussions, we seem disinclined to take a central role. We must appreciate that the result of our failure to secure a place in these conversations will be that the decisions that flow from them will be applied to us, not by us.

But that is our problem, not yours. Your challenge is to prepare yourselves as best you can for a future profession that is still taking shape – to anticipate “unknown unknowns,” as the expression goes. You can’t know the final form of things to come, but you can discern the principles that will shape it: professionalism, collaboration, innovation, and above all, client service. So start now: get in the habit of cooperating with your classmates, join social networks with a lawyerly focus, follow the profession’s innovators through blogs and podcasts, and wring as much information as you can between classes from your sessional lecturers about the experience of the lawyer grind – and, yes, from your veteran faculty members, too: they’ve seen it all come and go, and they have wisdom you can only guess at.

Use these resources, and as many others as you can pull together, during your time here. Understand, above all, that your life at law school – the courses, the interviews, the grades, all of that – is not the only or a sufficient aspect of your legal education. It’s one piece of the puzzle, and you need to find the others. The days when a law degree was all you needed to be a lawyer, if they ever existed, are gone now. Your preparation for a legal career – a career that will be different from that of anyone who’s gone before you — is now your responsibility. Don’t look back three years from now and say, “Law school didn’t prepare me for a legal career.” Like it or not, we can’t do that anymore. Like it or not, that’s your job – and it starts right now.

As does my retirement. Drinks in the law lounge are on me.

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