What is the role of Law Schools in the Policy Process?

What should be the role of a law school the policy process? At first glance, the question might look odd. Law schools are not political institutions with a mandate to develop or deliver public policy (beyond high quality and accessible legal education, and groundbreaking legal research). Sometimes, however, good policy requires the involvement of institutions and individuals who are not political or tied to partisan agendas.  In my view, law schools have a vital, distinct, and constructive role to play in facilitating and enriching public debate.

Law Schools are public bodies, in the sense that they receive public funding and are regulated by statutes and public bodies, and in the sense, their mission is fundamentally about advancing the public good. In my view, consistent with this mission, all segments of the Law School community should consider how their activities may add to the quality and breadth of perspectives of the public debate on issues in their field.

Osgoode Hall Law School’s recently approved Strategic Plan, for example, commits our community to research intensification, and elaborates that this includes not just scholarship in books and law reviews but also contributions to the policy process, public debate and law reform.  This can happen in multiple ways at a Law School – faculty writing on law reform and policy issues for academic publications; contributing pro bono services in the context of public interest litigation, serving as experts in the regulatory process, collaborating with policy-making institutions on the design and delivery of seminars, intensives and clinical programs; contributions to public inquiries and law reform (for example, through Osgoode’s innovative “scholar in residence” program with the Law Commission of Ontario); writing op-eds (check out these recent examples from Osgoode colleagues Lisa Philipps, Stephanie Ben-Ishai and Roxanne Mykitiuk), undertaking commissioned research for Government, think-tanks, NGOs or public agencies, providing the evidentiary basis for policy, and more. All of these activities feature legal research and analysis in action. Many of them will lead to academic publications but attempting to draw a sharp distinction between “academic” and “policy” scholarship likely obscures more than it reveals.

The value of policy contributions, in my view, comes with some important caveats. A Law School, because it is a public institution, should pursue academic inquiry and not partisan advocacy. For a Law School to support one political party over another would not be appropriate. Law Professors, like other academics, enjoy academic freedom. Law Schools, however, operate within some constraints, both because they are part of a broader University community and because our own community consists of  students, staff, faculty and alumni of widely varying convictions, all of whom should look to their Law School as reflecting values they respect. Law Schools, in other words, are big tents. For this reason, Law Schools tend to be committed to pluralism and to respect for both majority and dissenting viewpoints.

Law schools are funded and run in the public interest, just as many of our graduates will join a legal profession regulated in the public interest. Understanding this public support as not just a privilege or a right but as a responsibility to contribute to public debate and the improvement of policy choices, in my view, creates a valuable model of professional education premised on citizenship and engagement. I could go on, but perhaps I should work on that op-ed I’ve been meaning to write instead…