Micro law schools

Two interesting articles by Alex Dimson at Law Is Cool today have me thinking about a possible next step in the evolution of law schools. Two Ontario universities have applied to set up law schools: Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. Alex reports that Lakehead’s application, although on shakier ground with both the Law Society of Upper Canada and other law deans, seems to have political momentum, while Laurier’s isn’t so fortunate. I personally think there should be no new law schools until Ontario fixes its training and licencing regime, but that’s a story for another day.

What interests me more is how the universities are pitching the proposed law schools. Lakehead suggests a class size of just 50 students, while Laurier envisions no more than 75, and each is described as specializing for particular regions and practice areas. According to Law Times, the Lakehead school “would focus on aboriginal law, access to justice in northern and rural communities, decreased access to the profession for students from northern Ontario, and the decline of participation in sole and small firms in the area.” In the LIC story, University President Fred Gilbert added natural resources to the list. Thunder Bay is in small-town Ontario, deep in mining country and close to several aboriginal populations, so the program sounds like it would be very much tailored to the community.

Laurier, meanwhile, is in Canada’s new high-tech heartland of Waterloo, home of BlackBerry maker Research In Motion and other innovative companies. Laurier President Fred Blouw framed the issue this way in another Law Times story: “With respect to the Kitchener-Waterloo area as a hub of intellectual property development around the technology sector, [there is] a tremendous need for specialized legal training, legal knowledge, and a need for more bodies.” The story adds that “the school also draws many students from rural centres, where lawyers often practice in a small firm or sole practitioner setting.”

This makes me wonder if, following the lead of microbreweries and microlenders, we might someday soon see the debut of the micro law school: a boutique institution with intentionally small class sizes that aims to produce graduates specialized for certain types of private-practice careers.

Most law schools today try to prepare their students to lead any kind of legal career in any kind of setting: big-city megafirm, suburban boutique, small-town solo, capital-city public-sector, urban corporate law department, what have you. Of course, it’s arguable how much the school does to actually train its students for these careers, but my point is that your average law graduate is meant to be multi-purposed: he or she comes out with a general grounding in the law that can be applied across the career board. Indeed, competence requirements dictate that new grads emerge as jacks of all trades, ready to be plugged into any particular niche in the profession.

But the law is specialized, deeply so. There are few pure GPs left anymore, and specialization is all over the profession: in employer type (practice groups, boutiques, niche practices, one-person law departments, enforcement agencies, etc.), job setting (global city, university town, fishing village, bedroom suburbia, etc.) and practice area (financial institution M&As, DUI defence, elderly clients’ wealth management, divorce mediation with children involved, and thousands more), to name a few. Most everyone who looks at the future of the law sees niches everywhere and generalists in retirement.

Yet law schools are still largely general-purpose institutions. Absolutely, many have specialty courses, but these specialties are meant to supplement the general curriculum, not to replace it. The process of honing these new grads to a sharp specialized point is left to the profession. But what if some schools wanted to give their students a head start on the honing process?

A new breed of micro law school might challenge our traditional understanding of what a law degree could accomplish. A graduate of the kind of law school Lakehead envisions, if I can speculate for a moment, might be a poor fit in a national firm with a strong corporate practice, but he’d hit the ground running if he set up a small rural practice dealing with native land claim issues. Likewise, a Laurier law grad might perhaps not work out as a family and estates lawyer in a small community, but she’d be pure gold for a dynamic startup focusing on biofuels. Students would have to enter these schools with eyes wide open, recognizing that they’re perhaps narrowing their options from the start; but if they already know where and what they want to do with their degrees, why shouldn’t they try a specialized law program?

I want to add some caveats here. I’m not suggesting that Lakehead or Laurier wouldn’t give their law students the same general grounding other schools give their students (though I’d be intrigued if they did go the full specialist route, as suggested above). And I don’t underestimate the licencing challenges this would create for the profession: what if a micro law graduate wanted to switch practices or locations mid-career? How little “general grounding” in the law is enough to ensure minimal fitness to graduate? How do we define “competence” in such a circumstance?

But I suggest that we’re already at that point, de facto. If a corporate M&A specialist decided to switch to immigration law today, there’s nothing to stop him and nothing to protect his clients from uninformed malpractice, beyond the same professional insurance we have in place today. I’ve noted before the oddity that each state or province has one governing body for every lawyer regardless of practice type, whereas health-care practitioners have dozens, depending on the particular specialty in question. As law increasingly becomes a fragmented, long-tail industry, the idea of one-size-fits-all governance — and education — could become harder and harder to defend.

Virtually every element of or institution in the law today is specialized — practice areas, CLEs, publications, conferences, associations, networks, graduate degrees, etc. The only general-purpose institutions left in the law are law schools and governing bodies. If law schools do start to specialize according to the precise kind of legal career their graduates want — and we’re starting to see some examples already — the impact on how the profession views itself could be enormous.