Changing the Foundation for Innovation, Collaboration and Creativity in Law

Innovation, collaboration, and creativity are characteristics that are becoming a focal point of the current demands of those hiring legal counsel. Gone are the times of hiring a lawyer for one specific task with one specific requirement, and ushered in are the times of multi-faceted approaches to solving problems. It seems that because the legal world is starting to recognize that the lawyers being pumped out of law schools with a cookie cutter education perhaps isn’t the best way to stimulate innovation in the field, programs are being designed to help lawyers with their “soft skills”. While these programs are well-intentioned and certainly useful to those who have left law school behind decades before current, it simply doesn’t address the problem at a foundational level. The level I’m referring to is the ground level of fresh candidates being accepted into law school as we speak. Canada’s  top-tier law schools are not known for their holistic hiring process, and in fact usually require simply two documents upon application: (1) undergraduate transcripts, and (2) LSAT score. To me, requiring only these two items is inviting your new class of soon-to-be lawyers to set innovative thinking and real-world acquired soft skills aside for a spotlight focus on the robotic functioning of a fundamentally flawed grading system. If we want to fix what will soon be a profession-wide problem of lawyers who are being asked to perform in ways they’ve never been asked to before, the way to do so isn’t to address the problem years into a lawyers professional career, but rather at ground zero before they’ve learned the outdated and entrenched ways to approach the practice of law.

Upon discovering that perhaps law school was something I would like to pursue, I began the arduous process of looking into the requirements each individual school listed for their applicants. Not only did I leave the process disheartened as a student (I am the first to admit that working during my undergraduate degree did not fare ostentatiously well for my grades), I left it disheartened as a human being (dramatic yes, but also true). So many of the institutions I looked into did not have any kind of holistic framework in place to make sure that the applicants they were admitting were well-rounded in both academic pursuits and real-world experience. To me this screamed: “We want you! BUT with the caveat of it being the “you” only in relation to your grades and LSAT score.” Creating an environment comprised of academic superstars that were only admitted on the premise that their grades were high, and their LSAT score higher has created this strange utopian environment of legalese using human-like robots who read textbooks for sustenance and oil their joints with their regurgitated and unhelpful word-for-word caselaw.

That being said, there are always exceptions to the rule. There are certainly those who have been able to work, live lives, and achieve outstanding grades. In consequence, these people will have some of those soft skills that innovation, creativity and collaboration in a professional setting require. However, I do not think it wrong to say that most of those being accepted to the top tier law schools whom only weigh grades and LSAT scores are those students privileged enough to have been able to focus on school and only school in their undergraduate degrees. For some reason, this seems to be a fundamental flaw in our legal education system that is rarely discussed.

To tie this together, it is my extremely humble and overly simple second-year opinion that if we indeed want to encourage innovation, collaboration, and creativity in our legal profession, then why not try to fix the foundation that it was built on.  True innovation, collaboration and creativity blossoms from experience and practice in the real world with a variety of personal interactions. Why not include holistic evaluations country-wide in our law school applications to ensure that students coming in have a solid understanding of what personable communication is like and how to do it? Why are we encouraging, as institutions, students to only value grades and numbers that do not accurately translate to the legal skills required in the actual practice of law?

I am not trying to discount the importance of reading the material and being able to apply the knowledge. Reading comprehension and application is important and shouldn’t be taken for granted, especially in a profession where reading is a heavy component of the work. Showing your future law school that you are able to retain information at the undergraduate level is also an important indicator of being able to retain information at the law school level. However, this can be shown just as sufficiently through grades that live in the 80 percent range in tandem with outside-of-school work and experience, as it would be shown through grades in the upper 90 percentages with only an academic life focus. At the end of the day, the law profession is a service industry, and it’s no wonder clients are asking for more innovative and creative lawyers than the professionals they’re currently receiving. Many of the lawyers we’ve seen in this practice before us lack major service industry skills because of their purely academic focus, and I too as a client would want more soft skills present in my counsel.

In summation, I believe the key to truly endorsing innovation, creativity, and collaboration is changing the things that we as students are taught to value (i.e., grades). Institutions need to foster and appreciate adaptable thinking, people skills and real world experience. Adopting this mindset early would eliminate the need for lawyers to later on take courses to essentially learn how to talk to human beings on a human being level. This is arguably a skill we should all value as residents of this planet, instead of treating it like an abnormal characteristic that isn’t found abundantly in the regular functioning of society. I would argue even, that offering these courses as learning tools is simply affirming to lawyers and students that all the skills they need to know come from a classroom. These skills are easily achievable through interactions in the world by simply stepping outside of your front door and into an assortment of diverse social situations. I agree that the three aforementioned characteristics of collaboration, creativity, and innovation are necessities for those working in this current legal world, and are not consistently present at this time. My agreement on this issue also concludes that I acknowledge there is a problem that has not been properly addressed, managed, or cared about. Hopefully as I continue my journey through law school and then (hopefully, COVID-19 willing) into the practice of law itself I will see the institutional focus on grades and LSAT scores diminish in lieu of a focus on holistic application requirements. It is a hopeful outlook, but one I think is certainly achievable. The law itself is known to be an incredibly complex grey area for interpretation, so why are we making our recruiting requirements and expectations so black and white?

7 thoughts on “Changing the Foundation for Innovation, Collaboration and Creativity in Law

  1. Wonderful article, Jaicee. I would be very interested to hear your response to the new curriculum and admissions process implemented at Ryerson Law.

    Ryerson aims to deliver a progressive education, and one that underlines the importance of the entrepreneurial spirit and technological fluency for the 21st century lawyer. Is this holistic, innovative ethos sufficient to deliver the modern and comprehensive education discussed in your article? Or, do you believe that the Canadian legal education system requires a complete overhaul to achieve the instructional goals you have articulated above?

  2. Hey! Interesting blog post.

    I agree that law is a service industry, and soft skills like the ability to collaborate and talk like a “human being” are extremely valuable characteristics for a lawyer to have.

    As much as I like the idea of altering the application requirements to attract more well-rounded applicants (as some schools like TRU appear to have done), I’m not sure it completely addresses the problem.

    Having life experience to write down on paper doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve acquired any of the soft skills mentioned. It is very possible to get hired at Starbucks and then deliver absolutely horrible customer service for the entire year you’re there – my sister would admit that she’s a prime example of someone who did this.

    Perhaps a combination of a more holistic application process AND an increased focus on practical training in law school that emphasizes those soft skills could be a winning combination?

  3. What a great post, and what an interesting discussion. What do you think about this? It’s an interview tool that can be used for identifying non-academic qualities like resilience and people skills. A few years ago we considered trying out for the admission process here. I was in favour, but it didn’t happen. Also, any fans of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History out there? He did an episode on law school meritocracy, the LSAT, and the mismatch between what we select for and what predicts professional success. It’s a great listen. I don’t always agree with what he says, but he does know how to say it in an interesting way. And in that episode he interviews Bill Henderson, who is one of my intellectual heroes and started that IFLP thing that you had in the readings.

  4. Great post, I loved reading it 🙂

    “if we indeed want to encourage innovation, collaboration, and creativity in our legal profession” – I think the biggest part of the problem is that we DON’T want to encourage innovation and creativity in the profession. Encouraging lawyers and law schools to adapt and change is an uphill battle but luckily, it seems like the pool of people who are for the change is growing.

  5. Awesome post Jaicee! “Human-like robots who read textbooks for sustenance and oil their joints with their regurgitated and unhelpful word-for-word caselaw” was a particularly funny excerpt.

    As someone who wants to ultimately practice law in a small town, I think the “soft skills” and legal innovation are even more important than for someone practicing in a more populated area. When you work in a large city you are often able to rely on the established reputation of your firm in order to bring in business.

    In a smaller town having the skills to develop personal relationships is extremely important as you might not have that reputation to rely on. Clients often choose firms because the lawyer is a friend of a friend or because they’ve seen them within the community. You also might not have the same access to resources working in a smaller firm and therefore being able to optimize your practice through the latest legal innovations can be a huge advantage. Maybe someone who has worked in small town law disagrees?

  6. Well-written, Jaicee! A good balance between conciseness and bon mots.

    Like Bryce, I want to practise in a small town. I agree 100% with his feelings on soft-skills and innovation – a key reason I enrolled in DELS is to make myself more resilient and flexible.

    That being said, holistic admissions raise some interesting questions:

    1) Do you feel there is an objective way to quantify or measure a candidate’s soft-skills (eg to discern they have more merit than another candidate’s)? Could holism result in admissions based on candidates “more like” the admitter (even on a subconscious level), while ignoring the more democratic metric of grades (for the disadvantaged, “cool” life experiences – travel, volunteering – may be less accessible than strong grades. A good student may get a scholarship, become a doctor, and support her extended family. Veering from this path to learn social niceties at a minimum wage job might be an unaffordable indulgence). Could it encourage, rather than discourage, nepotism (“my son has crappy grades, but you can let him in under the guise of holism”)?

    2) Are you concerned that a holistic approach will result in lowered academic standards? You made it clear you value academics, which I think is great. I agree that generally, an 80% average is probably sufficient (combined with soft-skills), but is this really what we want to shoot for? I would argue there is strong evidence of academia’s decline (in rigor and quality), both in NA, and the world over – partly due (I believe) to the current trend of admissions based on other metrics. At the same time, the workplace is more competitive than ever – we are competing on a global, rather than a regional or national scale. While people skills will certainly lend an advantage in this environment, is that *enough* for a profession as information-dense as law? Will my charm (and 80% average) stand up to the superior minds of lawyers from Asia, where the academic tradition had always been stronger? My question is: is it possible to do both/and? Do you think it’s possible to keep academic standards high while giving equal weight to people skills? Or does a life of academia preclude the opportunity to develop one’s social IQ (you hinted at this in your post)?

    I’m sure you can tell I like to play Devil’s advocate ;). That being said, I hope my comments are understood as respectful, as they were certainly intended to be. I love a good discussion!


  7. Thanks for this post, Jaicee!
    As someone who worked through high school, undergrad and now law school – it resonated strongly with me and you’re not going to get much disagreement from me. Although I can see how Becca’s comment also makes sense – soft skills don’t develop just from holding a particular service job. They need to be cultivated and refreshed like all skills.

    I am particularly curious how must more difficult developing these soft skills may become in a more social-distanced world and workplace. Will it be harder to develop emotional intelligence when you’re now learning how to serve customers through online ordering or can’t meet with them in person? Will communication forever look different? This may mean even what we, as young lawyers who value soft skills, have to adjust what we understand creative and interpersonally skilled people look like. “Adaptable thinking, people skills and real world experience” mean very different things in 2020 than they did in 2019…

Comments are closed.