The Three Possible Futures of Law School

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Law schools in the early twenty-first century are under many pressures that did not exist half a century ago. Law as a body of knowledge has become much more fissured and specialized in the curriculum and has become more globalized. There are many more pressures on faculty research and teaching activities. Schools are more diverse, and students come to them with new expectations and leave for new and more diverse employments. Regulatory pressure is more insistent and frequent; and financial support is rarely commensurate with the many demands made upon the school. The materialities of law schools themselves are changing, as digital technologies enable new forms of learning. How might law schools respond to these bewilderingly complex changes? While faculty may consider that the fundamental values of law schools remain largely the same, such pressures are altering law school activities and cultures.

Last week, I gave a keynote at Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Law conference, Directions in Legal Education, where I discussed some of these pressures and how we might take control of our own futures by reshaping our own identities.  I outlined three possible portraits of future law schools:

  1. The first portrait is law school as a design school where the focus is on whole-curriculum design. An example is the Problem-Based Learning (PBL) curriculum that several law schools have taken up as a solution to some of the problems stated above. Examples include the LLB of York University Law School in England and The Australian National University College of Law’s Online Problem-Based Learning JD. There are striking parallels between the PBL curriculum, the design aesthetic of the Bauhaus movement in the early twentieth century, and the aims and methods of legal realism.
  2. The second portrait is law school as kindergarten. Much as play and creativity are used in High Scope and Montessori kindergartens so learning, code and multimedia can be used to develop critical and professional identities in law schools.
  3. The third portrait focuses on the unique links between law school and art school. The central place accorded to habit and creativity in art school learning can be used to develop capabilities in law school, not least in learning what might be regarded as the foundations of our own discipline: justice, legal reasoning, communication, and legal history.

We also considered the art of seascapes: what faculty and regulators can learn for the future of law schools, and what students can appreciate and practice of both art and law in their own lives and careers.

It may sound as if art is being used merely as a metaphor for legal education. Or else art is a service – it can be used to help up become more empathetic for instance, more aware of the effects of law and legal process. But art can do more and works at a deep meta-level in legal education, for it helps us to analyze legal discourse.

The art of rhetoric, for instance, can help us become better writers, and across a whole range of genres – academic essays, client letters, web-writing. At one university, in a simulation project I helped to design, we asked students on a professional course to write and post short pieces for their clients on the web pages of their virtual firms. Students’ work was generally thorough and detailed. But in the process, they created mini 1500-word essays, complete with footnotes and case law references. Clearly, work was still to be done. So, we brought in a local law firm’s Professional Support Lawyer or PSL, together with the firm’s web-writer. They had collaborated on producing web copy for the law firm. We asked them to hold workshops for students on how the process and product of web-writing in legal comms for clients was different from the academic forms of composition students had practised in their law degrees. From the quality of the writing students produced after this intervention it was clear they had learned much from the workshops. We asked the PSL and web-writer to appear in webcasts, for future cohorts of students. They did so, in a form of conversation about writing, with examples, that analyzed compositional practices and helped students adapt the rigour of academic discourse to more fluent, client-focused communications. In its way, their intervention on the art of writing was modestly transformational.

Or take a YouTube conversation such as that between Roger Kneebone and Joshua Byrne. Roger is a Professor of Surgical Education at Imperial College, University of London, and one of his specialisms is simulation in the teaching and learning of surgery. Joshua is, a master tailor, founder of the bespoke tailoring house Byrne & Burge of Mayfair, London. Both practitioners were discussing some of the essentials of their craft, namely cutting and sewing, and how such skills were learned by both surgeons and tailors. For example, finger sensitivity is essential to a surgeon sewing a blood vessel so that the vessel neither leaks (too loose a stitch) nor constricts blood flow (because stitching is too tight). For a master tailor the same applies to work on the join of a sleeve to the shoulder of a garment where stitching must be even, and neither loose nor tight. They also discussed the ways in which ethics, aesthetics and professional practice thread through their work in both theatre and cutting room. What they were discussing was nothing less than an anthropology of practice.

Art and craft offer valuable lessons for legal educators, for in the processes of art and its ceaseless re-creation of tradition, forms and techniques we can learn valuable insights and practices that can help us transform the future of legal education.


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Paul Maharg, is Distinguished Professor of Practice – Legal Education at Osgoode Hall Law School, Ontario, part-time Professor of Law at Nottingham Law School, and Honorary Professor at the Australian National University College of Law in Canberra. He was educated in Arts, Education and Law. He blogs at Email:

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