Student-focused law degrees

Mark Osler at the Law School Innovation blog points us towards the University of Dayton Law School, which offers students the option to complete the standard three-year degree in just two calendar years (including a summer off) through an earlier start date and a more intensive course load. The implications, as Mark observes, include less time and lower costs. The major downside would appear to be less time to fully absorb the law school experience.

But would that necessarily be a bad thing? I’m certainly not the only law school grad who found third-year largely unnecessary and mostly frustrating, from academic, career and even social points of view (two years is probably the maximum time you can keep future lawyers cooped up before nerves fray and friendships splinter). When you spend a year taking courses marked as “elective,” that’s a pretty good sign you’re going through the non-essential motions of a degree program.

What interests me even more than the two-year accelerated program, though, is the way Dayton arranges its curriculum. The “Lawyer as Problem Solver” program lets students choose from among three curricular tracks: advocacy and dispute resolution, personal and transactional law, and intellectual property, cyberlaw and creativity. As you might guess, the first is geared towards students who want to focus on litigation and mediation, the second is for those interested in transactional solicitor-type work, and the third is meant for those headed for the entrepreneurial new-media industries. In all three cases, this is a program designed for people who fully intend to practise law.

Now, we’re not looking at a fundamental reimagining of the law school degree here. The track courses constitute less than one-sixth of the total course load, and of the 31 courses required to graduate (30 for the personal/transactional law track), all but three are mandatory core offerings. It’s also too bad that only the personal/transactional law track offers a course in law practice management. The course looks brilliant and seems like it ought to be required for everyone, especially since the school states flat out that the track system is there to “help prepare students for practice in a particular area of law.” Continue Reading

Ontario bar admission overhaul, part 2

Continuing from yesterday’s post, here’s the conclusion of a two-part running commentary on the Interim Report To Convocation from the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Licensing and Accreditation Task Force. Again, this won’t be a blow-by-blow account of the report, but I do recommend you read the whole thing. This article (which is also appearing today at SLAW) will simply touch on some of what I regard as the more relevant and noteworthy paragraphs on articling in an altogether remarkable document. Here we go.

83. The Law Society’s articling program has been an established part of the licensing process for decades. It reflects the transition from the earlier legal education system that was predominantly an apprenticeship system to the university model that replaced it. It has provided students-at-law with an opportunity to experience and learn about the practice of law in a relatively risk free context of supervised law firm placement. In the Law Society’s current licensing process the articling term is 10 months. Candidates may begin articling at any time after the end of the skills and professional responsibility program.

84. Unlike the medical model of education, however, articling is not interwoven into the framework of legal education. There is little direct link between the education candidates receive during law school and the “clinical” component that is articles. The profession has long viewed the articling program as a bridge between the two worlds of education and practice.

Just setting the stage here.

90. [I]ncreased law school enrolments, possible establishment of new law schools, increasing numbers of internationally trained candidates [are] problematic for the articling program…. [I]n a system that appears able to place approximately 1,300 articling students in a stable economy, it is likely that the number of candidates seeking articles in 2009 could be approximately 1,730. This does not reflect additional candidates that would come from any new law schools.

To put that in its proper perspective: in 2001, the number of new applicants for articling positions was just 1,247. The system is being overwhelmed. Continue Reading

Ontario bar admission overhaul, part 1

Yesterday, I posted a brief note about the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Licensing and Accreditation Task Force Interim Report To Convocation. Today, as promised, is the start of a two-part running commentary on what struck me as the most relevant or noteworthy aspects of the report. The first half, which I’ll address below, deals with the report’s preamble and its thoughts regarding the Skills and Professional Responsibility Program. Tomorrow, in an article that will first appear at SLAW, I’ll look at the task force’s recommendations concerning the articling system.

Herewith, an annotated stroll through a very important report.

15. A national standard for the approval of common law degrees for the purpose of entrance into law society bar admission or licensing processes has never been articulated in Canada. The only articulated standard for 50 years is a Law Society of Upper Canada document, set out at Appendix 1, that was prepared in 1957 and amended in 1969 (“the amended 1957 requirements”) and which other law societies appear to have tacitly accepted.

I think this nicely sums up the imminent train wreck of a lawyer licensing system that our profession lives with today. The standard was written in 1957, amended in 1969, and tinkered with at regular intervals over the next four decades while Canadian society, the legal services marketplace, and eventually, even the profession itself, evolved into enormously different beasts. In 1957, Louis St. Laurent, Maurice Duplessis, Tommy Douglas and Joey Smallwood all held elected office. Try picturing the legal profession as it existed in that era — that’s the profession that drew up today’s bar admission rules. Continue Reading

Articling abolition? A groundbreaking LSUC report

It arrived quietly and without fanfare. I’ve seen no reports of it in the mainstream media or the legal press. In fact, the young-lawyer-focused law blogs Precedent and Law Is Cool are the only places I’ve seen talk about it so far. But the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Licensing and Accreditation Task Force Interim Report To Convocation, delivered last week in Toronto, is set to completely overhaul the process of admission to the practice of law in Ontario and, eventually, the rest of Canada. If you’re a law student, a lawyer who intends to hire new lawyers someday, or interested at all in the present and future direction of lawyer training in Canada, this report is an absolute must-read.

The main interim report is 44 pages long, followed by an additional 152 pages spread out over 10 appendices. I doubt there’s ever been a more comprehensive report on the bar admission process (nor will any other province likely try to duplicate the task force’s efforts or findings), and I can only imagine what the final report will look like. For what it’s worth, I think the report’s findings are accurate, timely and sorely needed.

I don’t have time here to break down the report in detail — I’ll be writing a more comprehensive commentary that will appear at SLAW in a few days’ time and will be cross-posted here. But this is what you need to know:

1. The Task Force recommends the abolition of the current Skills and Professional Responsibility Program from the bar admission process in Ontario. Of all the reasons the task force gave for this recommendation, perhaps none is more suprising than its assertion that right now, law schools are doing a better job of teaching students skills and professional responsibility than the law society is.

2. The Task Force offers three alternatives to the current articling process by which lawyers ostensibly receive sufficient practical training to enter the practice of law. These are:

(a) make it extremely clear to all current and prospective law students that the law society does not guarantee articling placements, and accordingly cannot guarantee that a law graduate can become a practising lawyer (laissez-faire).

(b) set up or certify a parallel Practical Legal Training Course that provides law graduates who could not obtain articles the chance to earn an equivalent certification in practical legal skills training (Australian model).

(c) Abolish articling outright (the U.S. model).

The Task Force makes no recommendation concerning these three options — it offers pros and cons of each — but it makes quite clear that the status quo is not sustainable, not least because the Ontario bar admission process is facing a tsunami of rising applications over the next few years, culminating in an expected 2009 application class no less than 38.7% larger than in 2001.

The report is groundbreaking, if for no other reason than that it squarely lays out the numerous shortcomings of Ontario’s present bar admission process and demands that the profession act, now, to change. Go read it.

Out of law school, into a recession

Everyone’s talking about it, so we might as well tackle it, too. It seems immaterial at this point whether the US economy is approaching, entering or currently experiencing a recession — it’s clear that the economy is slowing down and, more importantly, that people are getting worried and even scared about it. Some of this can be attributed to the mainstream media doing its usual frenzy-whipping, but there is genuine cause for concern out there. This is the first time the US economy has tanked in the globalization era, and that’s going to have some nasty results (such as, US consumer spending power will drop but oil prices won’t, because for the first time, it’s Chinese, not American, consumption that’s pushing oil demand).

Things ought not to be as bad in Canada, but it’s still no fun graduating from law school, carrying a huge debt load, to find a mediocre or poor job market waiting for you. If you entered law school within the past five years, you paid boom prices for a law degree and you might end up in a bust marketplace. It’s not fair — but it happens. You won’t be the first new lawyer to experience it, but if you’re a Millennial, you’ve also never seen one of these things before, and they can be more than a little disconcerting.

There are lessons to be drawn, however, from those of us who landed in similarly soft job markets in previous downturns. Here are a few thoughts on what to do if you’re taking a new LL.B. or J.D. into a recession. Continue Reading

Eyes wide open

Over at the Wall Street Journal‘s Law Blog, they’ve published a Q-and-A with a young New York law grad named Kirsten Wolf. She graduated from Boston University Law School in 2002 right into the dot-com collapse and couldn’t find work, even though she was a B+ student. She has the courage and grace to admit that she went into law school not really knowing what else to do, and that when it became clear halfway through her degree that there wouldn’t be a job for her, she found she didn’t really have a passion for the law after all. Today, she works at a job she loves for a New York publishing company, but she has $87,000 in debt, which will take her about 30 years to repay.

This is what Ms. Wolf is currently up to:

I’m on a one-woman mission to talk people out of law school. Lots of people go to law school as a default. They don’t know what else to do, like I did. It seems like a good idea. People say a law degree will always be worth something even if you don’t practice. But they don’t consider what that debt is going to look like after law school. It affects my life in every way. And the jobs that you think are going to be there won’t necessarily be there at all. Most people I know that are practicing attorneys don’t make the kind of money they think lawyers make. They’re making $40,000 a year, not $160,000. Plus, you’re going to be struggling to do something you might not even enjoy. A few people have a calling to be a lawyer, but most don’t.

I think she’s exactly right. Continue Reading

Large firms and law schools

Law students seem to believe in a hierarchy of legal job options: large law firms #1, small law firms #1A, everything else #2 and lower. One of the main reasons for this is that the legal profession believes in it, too.

You don’t have to buy your average private-firm lawyer too many drinks before they’ll tell you that in-house lawyers “couldn’t cut it” in the trenches, that law professors are afraid of “the real world,” and that public-sector lawyers are basically civil servants with a law degree. It’s an asinine chauvinism, but one that’s still quietly held by too many private-practice lawyers (and that still resonates too much with some in-house/government/academia/NGO lawyers). That’s changing, but it’ll still be a while before our profession’s system is flushed of it completely.

Considering the broad range of legal careers out there, private firms (especially the large national and most prominent local firms) do have a disproportionately large footprint at law schools. These firms throw a lot of money, time and effort into branding themselves at the schools, resources that smaller firms and non-firm employers simply don’t have. You won’t see the Sierra Legal Defence Fund at too many OCIs. Little wonder that students assume law firms represent the be-all and end-all of legal careers, and focus their efforts accordingly.

But it’s also a fact that large firms are disproportionately represented in the pool of “employers willing to hire new lawyers.” Many large firms will hire two dozen or more articling students a year in one office alone — there are smaller and even midsize firms out there that won’t take on that many articling students in their lifetime. The associate pool at many large firms is larger than the full lawyer complement at most Canadian law firms.

Law firms are, effectively, the engine of post-call new lawyer training in Canada. A lawyer at one large firm in Alberta related that right before the firm announces which articling students will be hired back, she gets calls from other firms and legal employers inquiring about the ones who won’t make the cut. She’ll soon see those lawyers, whom her firm has spent a lot of money feeding, clothing and training, opposing them in court. That happens across the country.

How long firms are willing to subsidize post-call legal training in Canada is an open question – I keep thinking they’ll eventually run the cost/benefit analysis and rethink their policy. But for the time being, the legal profession requires these firms’ annual willingness to hire a lot of graduates who will eventually turn into few senior associates and even fewer partners. And all the students graduating with $50,000 in debt — which they won’t pay off with a job at the Ministry of the Environment — require it too.

All that said, I’m sympathetic to the plight of the excellent legal employers outside the law firm community who have little or no profile among law schools. But their day will come. When third-year students and young associates talk longingly about “alternative careers,” they’re belatedly turning their attention to the other 90% of the legal profession outside of large law firms. I’m a ‘95 call, and I and many of my friends articled and “associated” (is that a verb?) with law firms. Today, the great majority of us work for government, corporate law departments, or NGOs.

Law schools ought to do a better job informing students of the wide world of legal careers. But that’s encompassed by the much larger and more significant question of the relationship between law schools and law firms – a relationship in need of some serious work.

This post originally appeared at Slaw on November 13, 2007.

Three for the money

Three interesting items in the inbox today, each of which reflects a different facet of the many forces hard at work on producing imminent changes to the profession.

First comes news from the ABA’s Law School Admissions Council that the number of applications to U.S. law schools dropped in 2006 by 7.6%, the second straight annual decrease on top of a sharp deceleration in 2004 in the longstanding trend of rising admissions. The linked article focuses on the drop in both applications and admissions among women, and properly so. But many of the reasons for the decrease cited in the article — stronger economic times, more lucrative non-law career paths, bad publicity about punishing workloads in law firms — cross gender barriers altogether. With the talent wars in full swing, the private bar will not be happy to hear of a potential trend towards smaller graduating classes. I’d be very interested in seeing similar statistics from Canadian law schools.

Secondly, the consultants at Grant Thornton have released their 2007 Professional Services Insights survey, which looks at numerous mid-sized professional firms in fields such as engineering, architecture, and especially law (almost half of all respondents were law firms). The report says professional firms’ fundamental management models will have to change, in light of client consolidation, talent recruitment and retention, and generational cultural changes. “A broader team-based model characterized by a firm-client relationship will need to be adopted by professional services firms, to respond to the broader needs faced by clients and the new career demands of next-generation practitioners,” the press release says. “The report identified a trend toward this type of thinking at architecture and engineering firms, but” — you know where this is going — “less so among law firms.”

The day’s final story contains news of one law firm in Alberta that apparently is ready to adopt and adapt to the dynamics of 21st-century business. The Calgary Herald reports that the law firm of Shea Nerland Calnan is the joint owner of a new tax advisory firm called Moody LLP. The new firm isn’t providing any accounting services, even though most of the employees are CAs — it’s offering purely advisory and tax planning services. “What we see is the mid- to small-sized accounting and legal practices in the province don’t have tax planning departments,” Nerland told the Herald. “There are more and more people in need of those top-end planning services. There’s a lot of opportunity there.” There’s also a lot of opportunity for law firms to make bold strategic moves like this — Moody LLP is the first such jointly owned tax advisory practice in Alberta and only the third in Canada.

There’s a real first-mover advantage available to lawyers and law firms that feel the ground shifting under their feet and reposition themselves accordingly. It’ll be interesting to see who moves fastest and best.

This post originally appeared at Slaw on October 2, 2007.

To the Class of ’08:

I skipped my ten-year law school reunion in 2003. Partly I was just too busy, partly I already see a lot of my friends from law school here in Ottawa, and partly I never really got into that whole homecoming-week, relive-the-good-old days thing. Plenty of my classmates like it, however, and more power to them.

But I think we’re in the last days of the law school reunion. There are 342 Facebook groups with “law school” in the title, including one for Osgoode Hall’s 2007 graduating class that has (at time of writing) 129 members. In the age of social networks and real-time status updates on your fellow graduates’ lives, who needs the once-a-decade catch-up cocktail party in the old law lounge?

I raise this is to illustrate a fundamental change coming down the pike in how the legal profession conducts and organizes itself, and those changes are because of you.

You’re entering a profession whose culture was determined (consciously and otherwise) by the Baby Boomers. Gen-Xers like me never had the critical mass to alter that culture, so we just grumbled about it. But the generation graduating from law school these days can change things — and it will.

It’s not just about this whole “work-life balance” thing, which is overblown anyway (law is hard work, no matter who your employer is). It’s about foundational differences in how Boomers and Millennials view themselves and society. Here are some examples, all framed in generalized terms:

• Boomers viewed time as a means to an end (usually, higher earnings) and so created the billable hour system to calculate the value of legal services. Millennials view time as an end in itself — what system will you create to sell your work?

• Boomers maintained the great divide between lawyer and client — “we’re” the experts in charge, “they’re” the recipients of our wisdom. Millennials tend unconsciously towards collaboration, working with (not above) others — how will you relate to clients?

• Boomers were disturbed by the overwhelmingly white-male face of the profession and tried to make diversity a priority. Millennials take diversity for granted, and might not pay as much attention to the entry barriers still in place. How will you ensure diversity?

I could go on. With the legal profession finally undergoing true generational turnover (see our cover story), all the old assumptions are in play — everything’s up for grabs. You’re the ones who will set the rules, the expectations, the culture for lawyers for the next half-century. Go.

This post first appeared as the editorial in the 2007 Law Student issue of National magazine.

To the Class of ’08:

I skipped my ten-year law school reunion in 2003. Partly I was just too busy, partly I already see a lot of my friends from law school here in Ottawa, and partly I never really got into that whole homecoming-week, relive-the-good-old days thing. Plenty of my classmates like it, however, and more power to them.

But I think we’re in the last days of the law school reunion. There are 342 Facebook groups with “law school” in the title, including one for Osgoode Hall’s 2007 graduating class that has (at time of writing) 129 members. In the age of social networks and real-time status updates on your fellow graduates’ lives, who needs the once-a-decade catch-up cocktail party in the old law lounge?

I raise this is to illustrate a fundamental change coming down the pike in how the legal profession conducts and organizes itself, and those changes are because of you.

You’re entering a profession whose culture was determined (consciously and otherwise) by the Baby Boomers. Gen-Xers like me never had the critical mass to alter that culture, so we just grumbled about it. But the generation graduating from law school these days can change things — and it will.

It’s not just about this whole “work-life balance” thing, which is overblown anyway (law is hard work, no matter who your employer is). It’s about foundational differences in how Boomers and Millennials view themselves and society. Here are some examples, all framed in generalized terms:

• Boomers viewed time as a means to an end (usually, higher earnings) and so created the billable hour system to calculate the value of legal services. Millennials view time as an end in itself — what system will you create to sell your work?

• Boomers maintained the great divide between lawyer and client — “we’re” the experts in charge, “they’re” the recipients of our wisdom. Millennials tend unconsciously towards collaboration, working with (not above) others — how will you relate to clients?

• Boomers were disturbed by the overwhelmingly white-male face of the profession and tried to make diversity a priority. Millennials take diversity for granted, and might not pay as much attention to the entry barriers still in place. How will you ensure diversity?

I could go on. With the legal profession finally undergoing true generational turnover (see our cover story), all the old assumptions are in play — everything’s up for grabs. You’re the ones who will set the rules, the expectations, the culture for lawyers for the next half-century. Go.

This post first appeared as the editorial in the 2007 Law Student issue of National magazine.