LETR Symposium, day 2, keynote 2

by Paul Maharg on 11/07/2012

Second keynote, Wes Pue, from the University of British Columbia, Okanagan campus.  Legal historian primarily, but with a huge knowledge and interest in legal education.  He described himself as raised in a British dominion, proud of his Canadian heritage, an outsider/insider, which defined his later research and views.  Studied at Oxford, and noted the variety of professions his peers entered – not just law.

He described two revolutions in legal education in last few decades in England & Wales.  He described the change and transformation in terms of Rip van Winkle – his own experience, in part, when he visited England.  Interesting, because he brings out one interpretation of the tale, being about continuities and discontinuities in time, cultural changes, changes in structural forms, where the present bears markers of the past.  Those markers are with us, if we have the eyes to see them.

Citing the power of language to be used in different contexts and vary its meaning (even simple words such as boy or girl), he observed how language and structure are inter-related.  He took one passage from a university prospectus:

Universty law programmes must provide the most rigorous possible training inthe common law and statutory law of the country in order to ensure that their graduates emerge fully prepared to engage in their life career as lawyers.

Apparently unexceptionable — but is it?  Is it true of USA legal education?  Every common law jurisdiction?  Wes’s point is an interesting one, even more so when one examines the detail of university curricula and the relationship of academia to practice.  He described the Langdellian system as a ‘virus’ spreading across US law schools.  What are we training for?  Are we training in a Rolls Royce system where a Tata Motors system wd do?

He quoted the stats on employment in the US market for legal grads vis-a-vis their debt.  And as the sessions at the Bar Conference (blogged here) pointed out, this is unsustainable.  There is a comparison with the situation here, but it’s not nearly so extreme.  Still (and this is my comment), the US situation is a warning to us in Coalition UK of how things could go.

He compared US curriculum choices with the choices he experienced at Oxford, observing the constraints in US legal education by comparison with the multi-disciplinary freedom of choices in the Jurisprudence degree at Oxford.

So Canada like US teaches law as postgrad, uses a law school admission test, like the UK, have professional courses and traineeships — mix of US and UK, therefore.  The differences in the North Atlantic CL triangle are complex and interesting.  He cited Julius Cohen, The Law, Business or Profession?  (New York 1916).  He described the early professional advances in western Canada, founded on ethics; and also the huge growth of state regulation after WWII.  Lawyers’ incomes similarly went through the roof.  The seeds of self-destruction lie in this success.  Consumers can’t afford what lawyers charge.  Lawyers were attacked for their complacency.  Legal institutions came under attack also for these reasons.  No one wants to pay the cost of professional education — not government, lawyers, law firms, consumers, students.  Apprenticeships and demand for apprenticeships don’t match up.

Our challenge, he said, is to imagine the world 20 years away, and education and train for that time.  How?  In part, by improving the state of legal services — lots of inefficiencies there.  Ethics?  We need to rethink ethics courses.  The critical ethical issues are personal (going back to the point re resilience we mentioned in the LETR session on the first day)

Made a series of useful points, eg balancing numbers of those trying to enter the profession with places for them.  Should there be a professional commitment to match?  Shd we abolish professional courses and apprenticeships?  Can we redefine the QLD to make it more flexible, multi-disciplinary?  High costs of legal education are destructive: we need to keep the costs down.  PBL, he loves.  It’s done in UBC Medical education.  It’s very expensive.  Quality vs cost here.  How about sandwich courses, folding professional and academic?  Will practitioners absorb the cost of legal education?

He ended on a positive note — impressed with the efforts being made by regulators in this jurisdiction to improve the situation, with the LETR group’s work, and wished them well.

At questions, Derek Wood outlined the Bar’s contribution to attempting to solve the mismatch of students and pupillages, namely an aptitude test, given Wes’s comments about the lack of evidence regarding the utility of the law admissions test in Canada.

Very interesting keynote.  Reminds me of the point made by David Berliner in the Columbia Teachers Journal online, talking of school education in the US, that education in-school radical change is not possible without radical change to social conditions out-school. It’s a point that goes back to Wes’s analogy with the Rip van Winkle tale.  It’s a profound point, and in LETR we find ourselves constantly dealing with the burden of the past, the constraints of how things were done and the interest groups that accrete around those constraints, and how that stops us from wireframing the future.  Wes and Richard Susskind both agree on that (and many other) points: if LETR ends up by training students for the 1980s, we’ll have failed.


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