Now we play the rating game

Maclean’s has released its first ranking of Canadian law schools. The magazine’s choices for the top law faculties I’ll leave till later in this post, because there are rather more interesting things going on here.

Let’s first look at the methodology. The schools are ranked equally on faculty quality (50%) and graduate quality (50%), the latter broken down into elite firm hiring (25%), national reach (15%) and Supreme Court clerkships (10%). Here’s the ranking’s director, Professor Brian Leiter of the University of Texas at Austin Faculty of Law, speaking about the breakdowns:

The primary reason for the 50/50 weighting is to make it easy for a reader to disentangle the relative contribution of each element. Someone who has the traditional view that the excellence of a school is a function of the excellence of its faculty can see fairly easily how the schools perform on that dimension; someone who is mostly concerned with how the bench and bar view the graduates can disentangle that consideration simply. … Since the rankings aim to make the raw data more easily digestible, we needed to make some judgments about the relative importance of different kinds of professional achievement.

I count two “easily”s, one “easy” and one “simply” there, and in truth, there is a certain back-of-the-envelope charm to be found in the data-gathering process. For instance, faculty members were measured on citations in Canadian law journals. Why not journals elsewhere in the world? “I can see no reason why the measure of scholarly excellence in Canadian law schools should be citations outside Canada,” said Leiter. Turns out your reference in the Cambridge Law Journal wasn’t as important as you thought it was. Continue Reading

21st-century legal education

This article was first posted at Slaw on September 28th, 2006.

I wasn’t much of an articling student. I worked hard, but not smart: my learning curves were more like sheer cliff faces. I’m sure I wasted a lot of clients’ money and lawyers’ time during my year of service, and the firm was right not to ask me back.

In retrospect, I can see many things I should have done differently. But at the time, I was seriously peeved that no one had prepared me for this, that I hadn’t the first clue of what the practising Bar required. That’s been a pretty common experience for many new lawyers before and since.

Many lawyers blame the law schools, using overworn clichés like “ivory towers” and “here in the real world.” But law schools aren’t trade schools, and I don’t think they ought to be. A good legal education teaches students that the law has a history, a purpose and a soul, that law matters; it’s an incredibly rich and fulfilling experience that gives us the right to call ourselves “professionals.”

But law schools will have to adapt to changing circumstances in the years to come; they won’t really have much choice. Continue Reading

Don’t believe the hype

Whenever I drop by a law school campus, I’m reminded of one tremendous difference from 10 or 15 years ago: the near omni-presence of the practising bar. Back then, you noticed the profession on Careers Day (no OCIs back then) and maybe when the CBA President came to speak; otherwise, law practice might as well have been on another planet. Legal periodicals didn’t bother going into the schools at all, and of course there was no Internet.

Today, you’re deluged with news, information and opinions about practice. It’s not only from the law firms, which have had a huge impact on many faculties through sponsorships, donations, lectures and marketing efforts. It’s also through legal magazines and newspapers, which provide pipelines of impressions about life at the bar, and websites like Lawbuzz, which provide pipelines with fewer facts but more interactivity.

The multiplicity of information sources available today could lead you to believe you’re getting a broad cross-section of legal life. But I don’t actually think that’s the case. What you’re really getting is an intense sales pitch from numerous directions. Every element of the legal profession with a law school presence is there for a reason: you’re a valuable demographic, and they’re trying to sell you something.

What you’ll often find offered to you is an image or a model of the profession. You’re already familiar, for example, with magazines that promote a certain type of career and lifestyle as the norm, when in fact the profession is far too fragmented and diverse for any one style to be predominant. Buy into that image if you want, but don’t mistake it for the mainstream of Canadian law practice.

There are other sales pitches going on, too: consider this or that law firm for your summer and articling positions. That’s your call — in fact, it’s all your call, in fact. It’s not always easy, but try to remember that the practising profession is far more diverse, nuanced and complex than the images pitched to you can express. Don’t feel boxed in by an illusion of limited choice.

There are as many different legal lives as there are lawyers, and you can choose any one of them — or reject them all and create your own. It’s your career, not theirs.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the 2006 law student issue of National magazine.

The purpose-driven lawyer

The myth of the rich lawyer is remarkably widespread. That’s odd, considering the fact that while some lawyers are very well off, many others simply make a decent living, and some sacrifice potential income for a greater purpose.

These days, only the independently wealthy emerge from three years of legal education debt-free. Tuition is higher than it’s ever been, and textbooks aren’t exactly cheap either. Add in the cost of living in the metropolitan centres where many schools are located, and you can see why law school has become a major financial investment.

The schools do their part to ease the burden — bursaries and grants for lower-income students are greater than ever before, for example. But they need help if universal accessibility to a legal education is to be preserved, something that is a legitimate objective for our profession.

You can appreciate why the schools resist calls for tuition freezes. The convergence of government funding cuts, globalized competition for top professors and students, and aging facilities in need of renovation or replacement means that law faculties have to maximize their revenue sources. Many law firms have stepped forward with generous grants and sponsorships, but the bar can’t fill the funding gap alone.

The ideal solution would strike a balance, providing schools with sufficient financial flexibility to forge competitive programs while also pursuing the worthy goal of a truly diverse profession that reflects Canadian society. These are not diametrically opposing objectives, and through consultation and innovation, that solution can be found.

But consider the potential cost of failing to achieve that balance. Legal careers dedicated to ensuring fairness and justice form the foundation of a just society and express the best ideals to which this profession can aspire. They stand for the proposition that law can be the key to better lives for people fighting obstacles most of us will never know.

If we allow these types of careers to become inaccessible for all practical purposes, we will have lost more of our professional soul than we realize. It’s been said that the test of a society is how well it treats its most vulnerable members. The test of a profession is how much it’s willing to invest in that effort.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the July/August 2006 issue of National magazine.

A to Z: 26 trends for the legal profession

This article was co-authored with Mélanie Raymond, then-Senior Editor of National, and appeared as the cover story in the April/May 2006 edition of the magazine.

The legal profession is turning upside down, and many of the familiar landmarks are disappearing or bring replaced by brand-new structures. There are so many changes afoot that National’s editorial team could match each letter of the alphabet to a development that presents a threat — or an opportunity — for lawyers. Twenty-six trends, 26 letters: which ones matter the most to you?

Associé (Partnership)

It’s always been the Holy Grail, the ultimate goal for lawyers starting out in private practice It has been considered the final step in a lawyer’s transition from simply an employee to a partner. But this is all changing, thanks to systematic and generational change.

Equity partnerships (partnership without capital investments or draws), salaried associate, permanent or advisory associate — new forms of quasi-partnership are born every year. The journey to the associate level is accelerated in some firms, delayed in others. Methods vary from one firm to another, from one individual to another.

And increasingly, there are lawyers who choose to not aspire to partner status at all — for whom client development, firm management, and the additional responsibilities that go along with being a partner hold little or no appeal. Will partnership become obsolete? No, but flexibility, rather than tradition, will rule this ancient institution from now on.

Runners-up: Asia, Latin America Continue Reading

We mean business

I’ve been in legal journalism for more than ten years now, so I’ve heard pretty much all the clichés about the law (I’m guilty of having used more than a few myself).

My current favourite is the lament, “Law isn’t a profession anymore; it’s a business.” Lawyering is at least 400 years old, and I’m willing to bet that veteran lawyers were carping about this back in 1606, too:

“The honour of our calling’s much abused;
My time’s misspent in making clients pay.
The law is aught my eldest son should choose;
‘Tis but a petty busy-ness today.”

The increasing commoditization of legal services alerts us to the rising competitive tide that subjects lawyers to the vagaries of competition and client demands, just like any other business. But some lawyers would rather bad-mouth their insolent clients and try to ban their upstart competitors than accept the reality of the modern marketplace and look for ways to profit from the opportunities it presents.

The law is a business. It’s a professional business, to be sure, infused with high standards, strict ethics, a sense of vocation, and a duty of community service, all of which set it apart from other careers. But it’s absurd to pretend that the wonderful professionalism of law somehow makes its business side unnecessary, unseemly or unworthy of attention.

Many lawyers, of course, have an ingrained aversion to business. I’m certainly not the only one who entered law school with an undergrad degree rich in Arts courses and bereft of Business and Science offerings, along with a résumé that leaned heavily on summer jobs and our nation’s food services industry. Even my friends with B.Comms say that their degrees don’t help them find clients, manage business relationships or keep the overhead in check.

Accordingly, since law school teaches nothing about running a business and most Bar admissions courses offer little beyond Trust Accounting 101, it’s no wonder many of us end up uncomfortable with the demands of making a living as a lawyer. I’ll bet the growing number of “mature students,” who enter law school with years of work experience, will be the ones best positioned in future to ward off competitive threats.

In the meantime, legal organizations of all stripes could (and some already do) help by offering business training to lawyers, building their confidence and shortening the learning curve. When lawyers start to acquire and implement basic competitive tactics, then “commoditization” will have a much better chance of someday being relegated to the cliché bin itself.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the March 2006 issue of National magazine.

Try anything once

One of my more vivid law school memories is a first-year public law class with Sheila McIntyre at Queen’s in 1990. Prof. McIntyre, while teaching the core subject matter with her usual brilliance, was also giving many of us our first exposure to feminist legal criticisms and status-quo-challenging legal theory. The discomfort among many students was palpable, and the in-class mutterings became increasingly audible during the first several weeks.

“Look,” she finally said one day (approximately), “this is the only time you’ll ever be exposed to these viewpoints. You’ll be finished this class by Christmas, and then you can take whatever courses you want, graduate, practise law for the rest of your life, and never think about these things again. But at least listen to them now.” After all, she added, “It’s only one term.” She was, of course, completely correct.

These days, when I talk to law students, I hear many of them talk about wanting to follow “alternative careers.” While they’re often no more specific than that, I think what they’re expressing is a resistance to the so-called “big-firm career” — the one with incredibly long hours, loads of corporate work, and very little social value or responsibility. I have a couple of thoughts on that.

First, what some students might think of as “alternative careers” — public-sector work, in-house counsel, small-city or small-firm lawyering — are actually mainstream legal careers in Canada. Only a small percentage of practitioners work in national mega-firms.

The second point is that even if the stereotypes of big-firm jobs were true — and given many large firms’ remarkable commitment to pro bono work and community causes, you should doubt it — you might still consider spending part of your early career there, either for summer work, articles, or even a few associate years.

I articled at a Bay Street firm, an experience I like to call “mutually unsatisfying” — the firm didn’t ask me back, and when the initial rejection shock passed, I figured out I’d be happier elsewhere anyway. Some people like that type of career, others don’t. But the first-hand exposure to big-firm legal culture was invaluable to my career, and on balance, I’d do it again.

Bottom line: expose yourself to as many legal career options as possible, even the ones you think you’ll hate. You’ll have a fuller and deeper appreciation of the legal profession for it. And after all, it’s only one year.

 This post originally appeared as the editorial in the 2005 law student issue of National magazine.