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Rethinking Law Student Education: Interview with Dean Ian Holloway

Law Students celebrate graduation. Image also shows Ian Holloway, Dean of Law at UCalgary.

The legal profession is facing new challenges from technology, a competitive global market, an increased focus on cutting legal costs, and new entrants including the “Big Four” and other alternative legal service providers (ALSPs).

This past year, we surveyed over 230 law students at universities across Canada for their perspective on what matters most in a law firm and in a career. The results, published in the “Law Student Survey”, were illuminating, to say the least. The majority of students reported that their universities had not provided adequate professional training in the business of law. Only 2% said that they had received adequate training in this critical area.

To their credit, many universities are aware of the changing nature of the profession and are already taking steps to evolve their curriculums, programs, and support systems. For example, UCalgary Law—which describes itself as “Canada’s most innovative law school”—is championing experiential learning and opportunities for students to hone practical skills.

We spoke with Dr. Ian Holloway, PC QC, Dean of Law at the University of Calgary, about the changing demands of a legal career and the approach UCalgary Law is taking to help students address these challenges.

Interview with Dr. Ian Holloway, UCalgary’s Dean of Law

You’ve been a Dean of Law at the University of Calgary and Western Law for over a decade, and you’ve been involved in legal education for even longer. Why did you decide to become an educator?

I didn’t really plan on it. It’s something I kind of stumbled into. I was reasonably happy as a lawyer in private practice – or at least as happy as an associate at a big firm can be. But my mother died suddenly and tragically. I decided to do an LLM as a kind of sabbatical to “get away from it”. My intention at that time was still to return to the active Bar. That year, though, was so exhilarating that I thought I’d want to do a PhD. Even then, I still toyed with the idea of going back into practice. But a teaching job came up that I applied for, and won. So that’s how it happened.

I should add that my path, though unplanned, is relevant to how I approach my current job. That is that I still consider myself to be a lawyer. I remain a member of two Bars, and I am extremely proud of the fact that I am a QC.

Do students today face the same challenges as they did when you started teaching? When you attended law school?

They face more challenges than we did as law students – many more. For one thing, the legal system itself is more complex. For another, today’s students are entering the profession at a moment of disruption, whereas we began when things still seemed relatively certain. And the pressures to find Articling positions now are much higher than they used to be. We didn’t begin to worry about finding Articles until third year. Now, students have to start thinking in career terms even in first year.

In an article you wrote for Canadian Lawyer, “Training Lawyers for Tomorrow”, you said that “Law schools must focus on attributes, not just skills”. With the legal industry in a state of flux, how can law schools prepare the next generation of lawyers? 

At UCalgary, we say that our mission is to prepare students for the profession they are joining, not the one we joined. The hitch is that we don’t know precisely what tomorrow’s profession – or perhaps I should say, professions! – will look like. But it’s a reasonably safe bet to say that the model what we all grew up on – the Victorian model of inculcation of professional skills and attributes through gradual osmosis – is not sustainable. Whether we like it or not, law schools need to acknowledge this. And that means that we need to smash the conventional division between academic and professional education. In turn, that means that we need to start teaching things like business skills, project management, leadership and marketing to our students – all of which we now do at UCalgary.

As for attributes, many of the traditional values – honour, loyalty and duty chief among them – remain non-negotiable. But I also think that we need to do much more to inculcate a spirit of entrepreneurialism in our students.

The Calgary Curriculum is described as “deepening the role of experience in student learning”. How does this help prepare students for the demands of a changing profession?

We now know a lot more about how adults learn than they knew in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the conventional model of legal education was developed. And what the research tells us is that the dichotomy that we reflexively draw – myself included – between theory and skills, is a false dichotomy. If you want to teach people how to really understand something, then you need to teach them how it works. And if you want to teach someone how something works, then you need to make them appreciate why it works.

Put another way, every good lawyer I know can reason from first principles, and then actually do things to help people.

Put yet another way, I sometimes say that a lawyer with theory, but no skill, is useless. And a lawyer with skill, but no theory, is a malpractice case waiting to happen.

In another Canadian Lawyer article, “Joni Mitchell and Innovation in Canadian Legal Education”, you wrote that “the ugly truth is that grades continue to play an outsized role in legal hiring — even though everyone knows that grades are but just one indicator of ability”. How are you, as a legal educator, trying to change this way of thinking?

To my mind, this is one of the most vexing issues facing our profession today. If we – and I’m now speaking of all of us as lawyers – think that the profession needs to change, but we keep on hiring in the same old way, should we be surprised if nothing much happens?

But what am I doing about it? I talk to managing and senior partners as much as I can. I’m also active in the NALP Foundation and the College of Law Practice Management, both of which think about this a great deal. The truth, though, is that I can’t boast of much success. I guess that I’d not be a very good evangelist.

What attributes would you be looking for if you were recruiting for a law firm?

Brains, of course. But almost every law student today is smart enough. So I’d also be looking for resilience – both mental and physical toughness. I’d look for a team ethos, for every lawyer works in teams. And I’d look for emotional intelligence.

Concerns about the mental wellbeing of lawyers and law students have received considerable media attention. How should universities and educators address this issue?

This is an important issue, and not one that I could properly answer quickly. Part of it, I think, involves who we recruit to law school. But part of it clearly involves us honing our own emotional intelligence, and remembering that we all learn in different ways. As for the profession, I know that this is something that they are thinking about a great deal.

What excites you about the future of legal education?

I think that this is the most exciting time in more than a hundred years in which to be a law student! Yes, it’s a bit scary – disruption always is. But today’s students are at the ground floor of building a new profession. A profession that both embraces tradition and technology, and that meets the needs of the public on the public’s terms. What could be more exciting than that?

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