The responsibility for legal training in Canada is shared between the nation’s law schools and the law societies of the various provinces. The former are institutions of higher learning dedicated to the study of law as an academic discipline. Provincial law societies are responsible for assuring that legal services are provided to the public by qualified and competent lawyers. Law societies have a strong interest in law school programs but are primarily involved in the operation of bar admission courses and continuing education programs for lawyers.
Juris Doctor Degree/Bachelor of Laws Degree
Canadian law schools generally require three years of full-time study to earn the Juris Doctor (JD) degree (which formerly was known as the Bachelor of Laws, or LLB, degree). Many schools have developed limited part-time or extended-time programs for the study of law, but no Canadian law schools have night programs as are common in the United States. Applicants should consult with the individual law schools for specifics. Most law schools share a common approach to training lawyers. However, they differ in the emphasis they give to certain subjects and teaching methods, such as opportunities for independent study, clinical experience, legal internships, and involvement with governmental affairs. Many of Canada’s law schools with common law programs offer joint degrees that combine common law with other disciplines, such as business or public policy.
The First Year
The newness of the first year of law school is exciting for many and anxiety provoking for almost all. Professors expect students to be prepared in class, but, in most courses, grades will be determined primarily by examination at the end of the semester or, at some schools, the end of the year.
The Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Legal Education
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by The Honourable Mr. Justice Murray Sinclair of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, issued its final report. Recommendation 37 called upon Canadian law schools to incorporate Aboriginal Law and indigenous legal perspectives in the law school curriculum:
We call upon law schools in Canada to require all law students to take a course in Aboriginal people and the law, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and antiracism.
Aboriginal content has featured in the Canadian JD for many years now, but all Canadian law schools are now considering how they will best honour this call to action.
The Case Method Approach
There are different methods of teaching law. The one that might be least familiar to first-year law students is the “case method.” The case method involves the detailed examination of a number of related judicial opinions that describe an area of law. By focusing on underlying principles that shape the law’s approach to different situations, students learn to distinguish among subtly different legal results and to identify the critical factors that determine a particular outcome. Once these distinctions are mastered, students should be able to apply this knowledge to new situations. Students also learn to apply the same critical analysis to legislative materials and scholarly articles.
The role of the law professor is to provoke and stimulate. For a particular case, he or she may ask questions designed to explore the facts presented, determine the legal principles applied in reaching a decision, and analyze the method of reasoning used. In this way, the professor encourages students to relate the case to others and to distinguish it from those with similar but inapplicable precedents. In order to encourage a student to defend his or her reasoning, the professor may adopt a position contrary to the holding of the case. Because this process places much of the burden of learning on the student, classroom discussions can be both exciting and demanding.
The Ability to Think
The case method reflects the general belief that the primary purpose of law school is not to teach substantive law, but to teach students to think like lawyers. Teachers of law are less concerned about rules and technicalities than their counterparts in many other disciplines. Although the memorization of specifics may be useful to the law student, the ability to be analytical and literate is considerably more important than the power of total recall.
Law is as much an art as a science. The reality lawyers seek in analyzing a case is not always well defined. Legal study, therefore, requires an attentive mind and a tolerance for ambiguity. Because many people believe incorrectly that the study of law involves the memorization of rules in books and principles dictated by learned professors, law students often are attracted to legal education because they value structure, authority, and order. The study of law does not involve the kind of certainty such students are seeking; complex legal questions do not have simple solutions. Law professors rarely have all the answers, and they prefer to encourage students to develop their own. The challenge of legal education is the formation of reasoned and pragmatic solutions to complex problems and disputes.
First-year law students in Canadian common-law law schools follow a course of study that typically addresses many of the following fundamental subjects:
- Constitutional law—the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments, questions of civil liberties and constitutional history, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
- Contracts—nature of enforceable promises and rules for determining appropriate remedies in cases of nonperformance
- Criminal law and criminal procedure—bases of criminal responsibility, the rules and policies for enforcing sanctions against individuals accused of committing offenses against the public order and well-being, and the rights guaranteed to those charged with criminal violations
- The Foundations of Canadian Law—students’ introduction to the organization of the Canadian legal system, its processes, and its institutions
- Legal writing—research and writing component of most first-year programs; requires students to research and write memoranda dealing with various legal problems
- Property law—concepts, uses, and historical developments in the treatment of land, buildings, natural resources, and personal debts
- Torts—private wrongs, such as acts of negligence, assault, and defamation, that violate obligations of the law and statutory compensation systems
In addition to attending classes, first-year students may be required to participate in a moot court exercise in which they take responsibility for arguing a hypothetical court case.
After the First Year
After the first year of law school, students may be required to take additional compulsory courses. In addition, students may select from a broad range of courses. Generally, a student will take courses in administrative law, evidence, civil procedure, business corporations, taxation, wills and trusts, commercial law, family law, and professional responsibility before completing his or her degree. Most of these courses are basic to legal education; some are required by the provincial law societies as prerequisites for admission to the bar. Every law school supplements this basic curriculum with a wide variety of additional courses, such as international law, environmental law, conflict of laws, labour law, criminal procedure, jurisprudence, and legal history.
Legal education is primarily academic in that students devote most of their time to mastering general concepts and principles that shape the law. Some schools include programs designed to offer students direct, clinical experience in the practice of law. These programs allow second- and third-year students to participate in court trials and appeals, render counseling, undertake legislative drafting, and do other legal work for academic credit. Schools differ in the range and variety of practical education they offer.