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No press is sometimes the best press

So, legal education has been much in the news lately. Not the trade press — although we wish that the professional media paid more attention to us, we aren’t strangers to them. No, I mean the mainstream press — sometimes the front pages, above the fold. That’s unfamiliar and not always comfortable territory for us.

The most salacious coverage, of course, involves the Bora Laskin School of Law at Lakehead University. They’ve actually had a twin set of stories that proves there is such a thing as bad press.

The first coverage concerned the Canadian Judicial Council determining that it would assert jurisdiction to investigate Justice Patrick Smith, who had volunteered to act as dean. His motives could not have been more pure or noble — he wanted to pour oil on troubled waters and to salve wounds. And, as one would hope for in a judge, he was judicious; he made sure that neither his chief justice nor the federal attorney general had any concerns. Both gave him the green light.

Despite all of this — despite the nobility of his purpose and despite the assurances he was given that no conflict of interest existed, and, most extraordinarily of all, despite the absence of a complaint from the public — the Judicial Council took it upon itself to determine whether Smith should be impeached. The "star chamber" metaphor tends to be overused in our profession, but it is a fact that its modus operandi included preferring its own indictments and then to sit in judgment of them.

Not surprisingly, the press lapped it up. Writing in the National Post, Christie Blatchford noted that, to ordinary Canadians, “Patrick Smith not only did nothing wrong but also did everything right.” As for the Judicial Council, she observed sardonically, “it not only hears complaints about judges, it also starts them up. Business must be slow.”

But things only were to get worse. The now former dean at Lakehead, Professor Angelique EagleWoman, sued the University for $2.67 million. Former deans suing universities seldom make for a happy storyline. But what made it worse was that Professor EagleWoman was not just one of only four sitting female law deans, she was Canada’s first ever Indigenous law dean. Her appointment was viewed by Lakehead’s administration as a triumph. Her lawsuit must surely be a nightmare.

Another bit of recent law school front-page news was more localized but no less extraordinary for that. That was a story in the Nov. 23 issue of the St. John’s Evening Telegram that Memorial University’s senate had endorser a proposal to establish a law school. “Memorial University one step closer to getting law faculty” read the headline.

To those of us inside the Beltway, the story seemed bizarre. To borrow a line from Yes, Minister, it seemed a “courageous” step to take. A few years ago, when oil was more than $100 and Newfoundland and Labrador seemed flush, maybe it made sense, but now, when the province is knee deep in red ink, it seems unbelievable. What makes it even more unfathomable is the university’s statement that the school’s focus would be on social justice and sustainable northern development and that the business model would involve tuition set at $30,000 per year — higher, it should be noted, than the tuition at Western and Queen’s. Indeed, at that level, Memorial would become the third most expensive law school in the country! The point is that one can have a social justice mission or a tuition of $30,000 but not both.

And then there is Ryerson. “Ford government rejects Ryerson’s plan for new law school,” trumpeted the headline in the Globe and Mail. This was after many years of effort on Ryerson’s part to develop a state-of-the art, "let’s-prepare-'em-for-the-profession of the future" curriculum. And it built on a solid track record of programmatic innovation — the Legal Practice Program that Ryerson developed as a parallel path to bar admission.

In its JD proposal, Ryerson had jumped through all the hoops. And the model it was proposing represented the acme of innovation. But starting law schools seems to share something with comedy — timing is everything. When the new Ontario government was looking for oxen to gore, Ryerson Law seemed as good a one as any.

So, it’s not been a good few months for Canadian legal education media-wise. One can’t help but feel sorry for everyone involved in the Lakehead saga. I know many of them — faculty, staff and students alike. I hope that, somehow, they are developing what my late grandfather would have called the spirit of 1940. And EagleWoman was my fellow dean. I hope she gets the justice that the facts of her case warrant. But hope aside, the whole thing looks like an irretrievable train wreck.

As for Memorial, I wish it all the best (and, full disclosure, I was asked for advice by the chairman of its committee when its exploration of the idea of a law school began six years ago). For its part, Ryerson says it hasn’t yet given up the ghost on its own law school dream. I for one hope that’s true. If Ryerson pulls this off, it will represent a disruptive force that may cause the rest of us pain in the short term but make us all stronger in the long term.

But here’s the real problem with all of this bad press. It is a smokescreen that obscures the real issues. The Canadian legal profession is facing profound challenges. And those challenges implicate us in the law schools whether we like it or not. To take two of the most obvious examples, how the profession decides to configure itself will of necessity determine both the future of articling and the mandated content of the law school curriculum. But there are plenty of other issues, as well, where we are connected symbiotically. I’ve suggested in this space before that we could be on the verge of real solutions. I believe that in my heart of hearts. What we need, though, is clear air and a focused mind — and a lot less sensational press coverage.

This will be my last column for the year, so I want to thank all of my readers and wish you all the very best for 2019. Thank you also to Tim Wilbur and Aidan Macnab and the rest of the staff at Canadian Lawyer. One couldn’t wish for better editors and publishers than them. That they continue to put up with me probably proves the accuracy of the old motto, de gustibus non disputatum est. But I am grateful that they do!