Every university and high-school student should be required to fail one course before graduating.

It’s easy to focus on achievement, and reward those who meet (or exceed) expectations of performance.  Our school system feeds its success obsession using standardized tests, pass rates, and college admissions as a measurement of its effectiveness.

The problem is that many of the highest achievers graduate without ever being challenged.  They never learn how to take risks and fail.

Failure Hitting the Ground

The pressure to have high pass rates have made it tough to actually fail in Ontario high schools.  I’m not saying we should celebrate the failure to show up to class, or failure from a total lack of effort.

Real failure is about trying your hardest, and still not making it.

If every student were challenged to that level, we’d have the opportunity to teach real life lessons.  How to ask for help.  How to come to terms with your weaknesses.  How to push on when you feel like giving up.

With admission averages to many competitive Ontario university programs continuing the “upward spiral” that began over a decade ago, it’s no wonder students are allergic to failure.

At my alma mater, the University of Waterloo, you only have a 40% chance of receiving an admission offer to civil, mechanical, or software engineering if your high-school grade point average (GPA) is between 85 and 90%.  If your GPA is between 91 and 95%, the probability of being admitted jumps to 85%.

I’m not an engineer, and frankly, I would have never been able to make into a program at Waterloo if I had applied.  Even with such high admission averages, Waterloo was failing an average of 20% of its first-year engineering classes.  This bothered people so much they suggested making changes to the first-year curriculum in 2010.

As a residence don for 1st year engineers at Waterloo, I witnessed first-hand what failure would do to some of those 18-year olds.  Adult responsibility for their own learning hit many of them like a truck.  Some reacted by doubling down and studying seriously for the first time in their lives.  Others escaped into virtual worlds online.

For those of us who overcame it, failure was the best lesson of our lives.  My first lesson with failure didn’t come until I took a Japanese course for credit, and was blown out of the water by classmates who had studied it as a second language in Hong Kong and China.  Failing test after test taught me how to push myself harder, to ask for help, and how to take responsibility for something marked with the letter “F.”

If every school required students to fail at least one course, it would make failing okay.  Students would be encouraged to take risks, and get seriously challenged without the risk of their average slipping to an unacceptable 89%.

To have the F count as course credit, the student should have to (1) reflect on why the failure happened, (2) make a plan to overcome it by using all the resources at their disposal, (3) develop a “plan B” if their first plan doesn’t work, (4) follow through with the plan, and (5) reflect on the experience.

What do you think?  Would this ever work?  Would this have enriched your overall experience in school, or should we wait until people graduate before they’re allowed to fail?

April 1st 2013 marks the end of my eight-month experience in the Technology Engineering And Management (TEAM) course at Queen’s University.

Every law school should have a course like TEAM.  It allows law students to work with engineering and management students, and trains legal minds to look for ways they can add value in real-world projects.

2013-02-15 17.15.57

What is TEAM?

TEAM is an interdisciplinary project course.  Senior students enrol in the course from chemical engineering, commerce, and law.  Each student begins the term by bidding on projects proposed by industry partners across Canada and the United States.

Students are matched to projects based on their interest and experience.  Teams of 3-5 students are formed for each project.  The TEAM class runs anywhere from 18 to 20 projects a year.

Former projects have included the retrofit of a manufacturing plant, innovative carbon capture processes, feasibility of a new oil pipeline upgrader design, geothermal energy production, and environmentally friendly oil sands worker housing.

How did TEAM start?

The TEAM course was designed by Barrie Jackson , an ex-Shell employee and Queen’s Adjunct Associate Professor, in 1995.  He realized that engineers never work in isolation, and should learn the business and legal side of their work.

TEAM’s great work continues thanks to the tireless efforts of Dave Mody, an Adjunct Lecturer and “Engineer in Residence” at the Chemical Engineering Faculty at Queen’s.  Dave meets with student teams weekly to guide and mentor student groups, and to share his 17 years of engineering and design process experience.

What was my experience like?

I was lucky to be matched with a fantastic client known in the energy industry worldwide.  Their head office in Canada is in Calgary, so our team was flown out to get briefed on our project in November 2012.  Next week, on April 2nd we’ll present our final presentation and report.

Our project is a concept design for an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable remote housing unit for resource development workers.  We had a few different personality types and learning styles on our team.  It was a great leadership experience.

Have you ever had an interdisciplinary project that inspired you, or taught you things you didn’t expect?  Post it in the comments.

The legal angle of my project was on the aboriginal consultation requirements, and the environmental-regulatory requirements for an energy development project.  The nature of the project touched many areas of law, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.

 

I don’t know when it happened, but law lectures have lost their terrifying charm.  In my experience, students’ unwillingness to speak up—and most teachers’ merciful unwillingness to demand answers—has replaced the Socratic method with more passive classroom learning.

Without that pressure, the need to thoroughly prepare  for the next day’s lecture has faded away.  Safely nuzzled into laptops, my 60+ fellow students can follow along with our lecture using a PowerPoint slide presentation, waiting for each legal issue to be pointed out.

The proud and the few who do prepare may be disappointed to find there is no class discussion they can use to flex their arguments.  Their interpretations are never challenged or questioned.

Law school doesn’t have to be like that.  Laptop learning can be done at home.  The classroom should be for vigorous advocacy and engagement with the material.

The Socratic Method

Do we have to go back to “Paper Chase”-style call and answer in class?  No, I don’t think so, even though it has its merits.  Being put on the spot, thinking on your feet, and applying the law to unpredictable questions are a great foundation for future skills as an advocate.

What’s missing is a greater emphasis on legal problem solving, instead of the more narrowly focused case method.  Is it possible to have it both ways?

I’d like to ask legal teachers to consider taking a new approach.  Here are some elements I’d like to see in my next lecture:

  1. Demand preparedness: ask students who aren’t prepared to leave
  2. Provide—or work with students to develop—materials to learn doctrinal fundamentals at home, so people don’t come to class to type a transcript of your lecture
  3. Focus on practical problems in class.  Start the lecture with an interesting exam-style fact pattern.  Use that as a lead-in to the area of law the students are about to spend four to eight months investigating.  Talk strategy.  Talk about what the case means for future litigants.  Refer back to the case as a concrete example for core concepts.
  4. Draw out quiet participants.  Reward participation.
  5. Make the back row of students sit in the front row.
  6. Ask that laptops be shut, bowed down, or left at home.  If students are dependent on typing what you are saying in class, they didn’t read the material.

Do you have a Professor or instructor who teaches like this?  Let me know in the comments below. I’ve met a few, but it isn’t the norm.

We shouldn’t leave law school without speaking up, advocating for a position, or making eye contact.  For our future clients, let’s try leaving our laptop at home.

The way legal services are delivered in Canada is changing.  Increased competition and a demand for lower prices has pressured law firms to slow hiring and deliver their services more efficiently.  After finishing my first year at Queen’s Law I started thinking about how law students can help firms meet the demand.  It starts with an open-eyes look at where our industry is moving.

Lawyer blended with a computer and USB port

The reality is that corporate in-house clients are demanding routine process work be done for less, putting pressure on law firms to deliver their services faster with less overhead.  2012 also marked the first year that non-lawyers are allowed to own law firms in the UK, dramatically expanding the capital available for those firms’ investment and growth.

Here at home, lawyer-only firm ownership still reigns in Canada, but mergers with international players push our largest firms into ever-greater levels of competition.  Lawyers-turned-entrepreneurs in Canada are in turn growing their shares in the consumer market by launching online legal services.

New entrants to the market still haven’t quenched the demand for lower legal costs. Canadians face serious access to justice issues, and even middle-class litigants find themselves increasingly forced to represent themselves in court.

How are law students responding to these challenges?  Traditional not-for-profit work in legal clinics like Queen’s Legal Aid and Pro-Bono Students Canada is popular while in law school, but how many students continue their pro-bono efforts post graduation?  How does this solve the problem for clients who aren’t poor but still can’t afford legal advice?

I believe the change starts with how legal services are delivered.  I believe it starts by getting students thinking about innovative ways to bring the law to Canadians.

Law-students for Technology and Innovation (LFTI) is a student-run organization Nikolas Sopow and I created this year at Queen’s Law.  We’re passionate about finding better ways to deliver legal services.  We’re law students, but we’re not afraid of the changes coming to the Canadian legal scene.  Within three weeks we recruited four more executives to our team, and we’re still growing.  By 2015 we plan to have LFTI clubs at every law school in Canada.

Our projects this year are as diverse as our leadership team.  We’re hosting a speakers’ panel in Winter 2013 titled Technology on the Legal Frontier: Current and Future Ways to Practice Law.  We’re fundraising for computer literacy skills in Kingston by hosting a LAN party for video-game enthusiasts.  We’re blogging on the latest legal tech to hit app store shelves.  And we’re letting everyone know how the delivery of legal services is changing, so our classmates are prepared when they graduate.

Needless to say I’m excited at what LFTI has set out to accomplish this year.  Being prepared for the changing legal environment in Canada is about more than making a living as a lawyer.  It’s about making legal counsel affordable, providing greater access to justice, and ensuring Canadian firms remain competitive in the global market for legal services.

What areas of legal service delivery do you think could be improved?  How does legal education need to change in order to keep up?  Be creative, and ask tough questions. The innovative advocate is Canada’s legal future.

- Ivan

Note that this article was published concurrently on LawIsCool.com

Using the free online web tool Wordle.net, I generated word clouds from two very different Canadian legal-themed blogs (one similarity: they are both excellent).  It makes me think about the words I use most frequently to share my perspective on legal issues and the law.

What are yours?

Various Legal Words from Slaw dot CA

^inspired by http://slaw.ca (generated using http://wordle.net)

Word cloud of terms from the court dot ca

^inspired by http://thecourt.ca (image generated using http://wordle.net)

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