By Jan Creaser
How hard would you work for an A grade? According to Canadian Lawyer magazine’s Annual Law School Report the University of Calgary Law School has been making an extra effort. The school took the award for “Most Improved Student” this year, achieving an overall grade of A- in the survey.
The survey of 1,017 recent graduates from 19 law schools across Canada included questions about the relevance of curriculum, quality of faculty and students, methods of testing, and facilities. Multiple choice questions were used to assess each topic and the scores were converted into a letter grade for each school. Graduates for the last five years voluntarily completed and sent in the survey.
However, the number of students who replied for each school did not appear in the report, leaving many questioning the survey’s validity.
Regardless of validity, U of C Dean of Law Michael Wiley felt this year’s ranking accurately reflected the school’s performance. To de-emphasize the Canadian Lawyer survey, he directed attention to the school’s detailed method of surveying graduate satisfaction.
“We know our graduates are satisfied, which is consistent with Canadian Lawyer,” said Wiley. “We have a majority satisfaction.”
Many small schools topped Canadian Lawyer’s list this year, such as the University of Victoria. The University of Toronto was the only large school to place in the top five. U of T placed second after the U of C with the same grade of A-.
Why has the U of C–a smaller, younger school with an apparently bleak history–suddenly made the jump to number one?
“We went through a period of not very effective skills training and a relative lack of theoretical teaching compared to big schools,” said U of C Professor of Law Chris Levy. “However, we now deserve to be observed as a law school in the upper echelons and we have never been as bad as the article implied.”
Attention to practical applications was also scrutinized in the past, but now appears to top the student “wants” list of the report. This change in student desires bodes well for the U of C since it originally made a name for itself as the first school in Canada to emphasize practical skills training. Negotiating, interviewing/counseling clients, and advocacy are a few of the skills highlighted in the curriculum to ensure a student’s success after graduation.
“You can’t perform skills without theory and there is no sure balance of practical versus theoretical, but we think we have a good balance,” said Wiley, indicating that approximately 15 per cent of the curriculum is devoted to practical training.
Students agree, saying the U of C’s curriculum augments the theoretical law classes well.
“The dean has worked hard to improve the school and make the practical courses relevant,” said third-year representative of the Society of Law Students Joanna Carroll. “It’s about time recognition came West and people realized that you don’t need ivy-covered walls to have a good school.”
The grade falls on the heels of Macleans’ fall university rankings in which the U of C placed 13 out of 15 in the medical/doctoral category. U of C law students were excited about the school’s positive grade, but had strong opinions about the trend of magazine surveys and ratings.
“It’s stupid,” said third-year law student Gordon McCue. “People rely on the rankings, but they’re not valid.”
Erica Norheim, also a third-year student, felt the law school deserved the ranking.
“We have a well qualified faculty who are concerned about the students’ progress,” said Norheim.
Although Canadian Lawyer’s ranking is a compliment to the U of C, Wiley said he makes his judgments about the program based on the school’s own internal surveys and not on those of a magazine.
“Magazine surveys create questions and categories that assume everyone fits a certain framework,” said Wiley, who added that the U of C program is distinctive and comprehensive.
First-year law student Bruce Hibbard summed it up with a warning about the statistical validity of magazine surveys.
“It’s nice to see [the grade],” said Hibbard, “but the sampling method isn’t good and I don’t put much weight on it.”