Shauna Van Praagh is a law professor at McGill University and president of the Canadian Association of Law Teachers.
Congratulations go out to Trinity Western University. Well on its way to clearing all regulatory hurdles to opening a law school, Trinity Western looks set to welcome law students through its doors in the fall of 2016, and to send the first set of graduates off to the legal profession three years later. But if the British Columbia evangelical Christian university thinks the hard work is over once its proposed law school gets all necessary green lights, it’s in for a big surprise. This is just the beginning. As any established law faculty knows, law students do – and should – pose the toughest challenges to institutions and their governing structures.
To date, attention has focused on how external bodies such as British Columbia’s education ministry and provincial law societies would view Trinity Western’s community covenant, which prohibits sexual relations outside marriage as religiously defined. All of this external scrutiny misses the internal challenges that Trinity Western should expect from its own eventual law students. That’s because what goes on in a law faculty necessarily tests entrenched assumptions and rules, whether written or unwritten. Law students are central to that endeavour. The rules of a university – including Trinity Western’s community covenant – aren’t immune from exactly what law students are educated to do best.
What is it that law students do? They question any given, they offer grounded critique, they learn to argue and persuade, they engage in thoughtful interpretation, and they investigate law in the world around them. Law students are required to listen to others and appreciate multiple angles of hard problems. Even if in every case they read one party wins, the argument had at least two sides. Reading law reminds us that even in institutions of authority there are dissenting voices. Law students participate actively in the legal systems in which they are immersed and consider the consequences of explicit rules and implicit norms of behaviour.
Once they graduate, law students will take on heavy responsibilities in whatever roles they take on. But law students don’t just learn skills to put into use later. They practice them throughout their legal education.
Law students get involved in the governance of the universe they know best: their own law school. They contribute to important discussions about curriculum, evaluation, faculty recruitment, career counselling, and admissions criteria. They challenge authority, push their teachers in new directions, and uncover problematic power dynamics. Above all, they participate in their own education; they connect what they’re learning with their own lives and the lives of others.
Law students relentlessly assess the practices of their education in the light of their new vocabulary and concepts. They examine everything from the grading scheme to changes to the cafeteria schedule against the rule of law, procedural fairness, good faith, and the ideal of equality. They advocate for themselves and for others.
University communities genuinely engaged in legal education support and sustain all this activity. Without that dynamism, ability to adapt to change, willingness to ask questions, law students wouldn’t be getting the legal education they signed up for. If their law schools are serious, then law students should be constantly testing and critiquing. In a law school, everything’s on the table.
It’s clearly foreseeable that law students at Trinity Western will question their institution’s fundamental tenets. Indeed law students are particularly adept at challenging rules attempting to fix the permissible range of human behaviours and relationships. Trinity Western’s law school should expect and indeed encourage its own students to do so.
In opening a law school, Trinity Western may hope its values will make an impression on, and even change, the legal profession and broader society. But, thanks to the law students who will study there, the real change may happen on the inside.
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