Law School as Social Innovation

I have just finished an eventful week of talks and touring in New Zealand (or, Aotearoa, as it is known in the Maori language), culminating in an address in Wellington at the Australasian Law Teacher’s Association (ALTA) annual conference on the idea of Law Schools as social innovation. I heard from a number of Australian, New Zealand, and South Pacific colleagues about the challenges Law Schools in that part of the world face, from too many Universities chasing too few students, to the bifurcation of legal education between traditional LL.B. programs and emerging J.D. programs, to the rise of managerialism and a fetish for research performance metrics, to the search for Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples through legal education. Some of these dynamics are distinct to the Australasian model, while others resonate more broadly. Similarly, the reflections on legal education as social innovation I shared are dynamics in many ways particular to North American legal education, but which include elements I believe to be relevant more broadly. Below I summarize the points I expressed.


1) Legal education is evolving from its historic inward focus on legal concepts, doctrines, analytic frameworks (statutory analysis, reasoning by analogy through case-law, etc) and lawyering skills (oral and written advocacy), to an outward focus on problem solving; community engagement; law reform, social and economic innovation; and ideas in action. At Osgoode Hall Law School, this transformation took on literal dimensions as our 2011 building renovation installed windows in brick walls to let communities see in and students see out – or “New Windows on Justice” as we called it then, and academic dimensions as our 2012 curricular renovation included new experiential (i.e. praxicum) and research requirements.

2) Legal education is in the midst of transformation because of disruptions affecting the justice system and the delivery of legal services – including digital and tech transformation; globalization; rising tuition coupled with rising student debt; and critical counter-narratives challenging the norms underlying the curriculum (e.g. TWAIL, Indigenous legal education, interdisciplinary and socio-legal approaches, etc). These transformations together have compelled all law programs to come under unprecedented scrutiny. In the U.S., these dynamics together with dwindling applications and enrolments has led some programs to contract, and others to run unprecedented deficits.

3) Law Schools are also becoming catalysts for social improvement as never before –including a focus on better access to justice; more adaptive and flexible models and tools for dispute resolution; shaping social norms of fairness and inclusion; and re-imagining the role of the legal profession and legal professionalism. Reflecting this set of goals, the number of Law School based labs and incubators is on the rise (including NuLawLab (Northeastern); Open Law Lab (Stanford); Centre for Legal Services Innovation (MSU); Pitt Legal Services Incubator (U. of Pittsburg); and I would include in this group Canadian ventures, including the University of Victoria’s Indigenous Law Research Unit, the Winkler Institute for Dispute Resolution at Osgoode (particularly the Family Justice and Mental Health Social Lab), IP Osgoode’s initiatives, including its Hackathon to explore a more user friendly patent system, and U de Montreal’s CyberJustice Lab among others. Social innovation is also taking place within Universities outside Law Schools, as exemplified by Ryerson’s Legal Innovation Zone.

4) While the connection between experiential legal education (e.g. clinics, co-ops, intensive programs and internships) and social innovation is well-accepted and well into its 5th decade as Parkdale Community Legal Services celebrates its 45th anniversary this year), the link between legal research and social innovation has been subject to less scrutiny and attention. I believe this is changing. One-time research courses featuring legal research in collaboration with external organizations are becoming more common. In the past few years, Osgoode has partnered in such ventures with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), the Office of the Judge Advocate General (JAG), the Barbra Schlifer Clinic and the University of Ottawa-based Refugee Sponsorship Support Program. In each case, students engaged in organized, collaborative research, focused on problem solving, law reform and new ways of thinking about law. These collective directed research initiatives are expressly intended to marry the student-driven generation of new legal ideas with problem-solving for NGOs and public interest organizations.

5) Law School seen as a hub for social innovation can lead not only to social improvements (as set out above) but also, importantly, to higher quality legal education/ thought leadership in legal research; broader bases of community support for Law School; new resources for students and scholars; and broader support/engagement from alumni and the legal profession.

The ALTA Conference in Wellington coincided with the anniversary of my 6th year as Dean of Osgoode. It is amazing to think of all the changes that have occurred over this period – from the introduction of new accreditation standards for Law Schools from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, to the introduction of alternative pathways to licensing in Ontario, to disruptions throughout the legal services sector. The ivory tower is neither ivory nor a tower any longer; rather, Law Schools are becoming drawbridges spanning social moats, some seen and others still in the shadows.

While uncertainties and risk certainly characterize the future of legal education, I am more convinced than ever that the best years for Law Schools as social innovators lie ahead!