During a recent talk to a group of lawyers, I asked those in the room to raise their hands if they took tax law. The majority raised their hand. I then asked them to keep their hand up if they could tell me anything about tax law. Almost every single hand in the room came down, including my own.
Now, I don’t remember tax (or to be honest, most of my electives), but what I do remember, in vivid detail, is the time I spent working at Downtown Legal Services, the community legal clinic at the University of Toronto’s law school. I remember my first time meeting a client at court, speaking to a judge as counsel and my first and second Charter challenges. I remember the father I served in a family law case who dropped the papers on the ground and pretended he didn’t speak English in his upscale workplace. I learned valuable lessons about the legal system, fairness, inequity, poverty, privilege, opportunity and humility, and it left me more prepared for articling and the privilege of being called to the bar.
So, why isn’t this kind of experience required in the law school curriculum?
Having required clinical education is a win-win. Law students get practical and technical skills, and communities across Canada get access to justice. Law students won’t fill the entire gap in access to justice, but every little bit helps. Many Canadians can’t afford a lawyer, especially in households that earn too much for legal aid. In 2016, this magazine reported that the average cost of a two-day civil trial was $25,517. A recent poll says that 46 per cent of Canadians are $200 or less away from not being able to cover their monthly bills. What happens to them when you throw a legal issue into the mix?
Access to justice does not mean only court representation. Some individuals simply need help finding information to interpret or understand the law or resources to resolve their issues outside court. These are services that law students can easily provide and a useful way to develop legal research and writing skills and to learn to distill complex legal information for a lay person. It’s certainly a better option than seeking legal advice on Reddit, which is unfortunately far too common.
Students can be incredibly helpful in navigating the system. A 2018 paper in the Tulane Law Review entitled “Measuring Law School Clinics” looked at the efficacy of student practitioners in unemployment insurance cases. The authors concluded that “law school clinics help prepare students to be practicing lawyers and to serve low-income clients as well as lawyers do.”
In our neighbour to the south, many schools have implemented a pro bono requirement. Students at Harvard must perform 50 hours of uncompensated and non-clerical work, supervised by a licensed lawyer. With rising tuition, students are taking on part-time jobs to cover fees that are not matched by a commensurate rise in student aid, which means they often have little time for pro bono work. So, service should be worked right into academic requirements.
If our law schools can require that we take a first-year elective course or do a moot as an “advocacy requirement” or spend an extra two weeks on legal research and writing in the summer, why can’t they require us to do something that involves advocacy, teaches useful skills and is helpful for another human being? How many lawyers will end up arguing appeals? Most lawyers don’t end up serving large corporations. Far more end up dealing with small companies and actual people with problems big and small.
Law school is an interesting beast. We largely learn the law from people who don’t practise it. There are certainly a few schools that seem to regard their purpose as teaching theory, but not necessarily preparing one for a career as a lawyer, wherever you end up. This is somewhat mystifying — imagine if medical schools didn’t prepare doctors to be doctors but, rather, just to “think critically about health,” leaving the training of doctors completely up to outside parties?
Reporting on 2018’s National Pro Bono Conference, former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell said, “Pro bono work by lawyers is part of our professional responsibility, and its importance to the welfare of our community cannot be overstated.” If this is the case, law schools can send that message early on by making pro bono and legal clinic work one of the pillars of our legal education system.
Law students are certainly communicating that they think it should be. At the University of Toronto, the legal clinic became so popular that a lottery system had to be enacted. This should send a signal of how much law students are clamouring for this kind of practical, hands-on training. Just as we send future doctors into hospitals to learn and see first-hand while in medical school, we can and should do the same with our future legal professionals.
Hadiya Roderique is a graduate of the University of Toronto law school and a Ph.D. candidate at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management.