I graduated in the past year from the Faculty of Law.
Some of these comments are off the mark.
Should students really want 'practical experience' (i.e. working for free) instead of actually learning the law in a classroom setting?
It seems to be a common refrain that students want more 'practical experience' and want to be 'practice ready'. As an articling student now, let me say that learning practice skills is not the best use of your time in law school. Your goal is to first learn the law, and then become a lawyer.
There are two law school models: the full academic approach (used by the premiere law schools), and the 'practice-ready' approach (used by the newer law schools or at law schools where students cannot get articles). The U of A falls into the first category, but still offers a large variety of practical learning opportunities, such as Student Legal Services (SLS), various clinic/placement courses (such as the JAG placement--the only such placement in Canada, the Human Rights Commission placement, the Alberta Utilities Commission placement).
You will be a far better lawyer by spending the time in law school to learn how the law works, learn the underlying currents beneath the law, and learn a great deal of substantive caselaw, instead of wasting a valuable year of law school cutting and pasting into statements of claim or making very simple court applications over and over again in a 'practical' year.
From the people who I have spoken with, all my peers have secured articles at this point. The Dean mentioned that the articling placement rate post-graduation this year was over 90% again. You will get an article - but it might not be a complete walk in the park to find one. Articling is meant for learning the practical aspects of the law.
How should a student decide which law school to attend?
When you are attending law school, you are learning the law of the jurisdiction you're in.
If you have an interest in practicing law in Alberta, you should attend the University of Alberta Faculty of Law as the largest and most comprehensive law school in Alberta.
Likewise, if you have an interest in practicing in BC, attend a BC law school.
Students forget that the purpose of law school is to learn the law. Provincial variations in the law are pronounced and you will be best served by learning the law of the jurisdiction where you want to practice.
Other considerations should come second to this consideration.
Don't waste your time learning the BC Business Corporations Act if you want to practice in some other province. While there will be some parallels with other provinces, you will miss out on picking up the 'mood' of the law in your own jurisdiction, you will get confused with different section numbers, you will learn cases which cannot be relied upon (cases from other jurisdictions are merely persuasive), et cetera.
In retrospect, how does the University of Alberta Faculty of Law look to me?
In my view I made the right choice to attend the U of A Faculty of Law because I was taught by very well-respected and knowledgeable professors, I made close friends, and came out of law school a different person than when I entered.
Tenured professors (not sessional instructors) give a law school its academic reputation. I found that my professors were generally excellent teachers and many (if not all) had published widely. In many cases U of A profs have written texts or compiled casebooks that are used to teach the subject across the country. However, it should be noted that there were a few professors who I stayed away from, either because of reputation or past experience.
I would encourage you to meet your professors outside of class (in office hours or otherwise) and try to get to know them a bit. They are brilliant minds. In practice you will get a kind of spring in your step when you consult Bruce Ziff's book for a file you are working on and remember that he taught you property law.
Quality of legal education:
The Faculty of Law is fiercely competitive, but not in a mean-spirited way. To get good grades, I had to work harder than I ever did in my undergraduate degree, principally because of the strict curve (which is a feature universal to law schools). In the end, this forced me to learn more of the law and become a better future lawyer. But for some people it was disheartening. I observed a sour attitude toward the law school itself among some students that were not doing as well as they did in their undergrad. Everyone likes to get positive reinforcement and it is hard not to do so.
The law I learned was current, very detailed, and accurate. Professors had an encyclopedic knowledge of the law and wanted to share it.
When you attend orientation, YOU MUST talk to a few of your peers. Get to know even one person. There are lots of opportunities to do this. This will be the key to building friendships. Remember that everyone is new and knows no one. A small group of friends will greatly assist in your perception of the atmosphere of the law school. It will also help you get through difficult moments, like a crunch of assignments or exams.
The atmosphere otherwise is quite diverse. You have people who love to go out and have a good time (this dies off considerably after first year), others who get involved with a particular club, and others who simply study together in the library. You will probably find a social group you will fit with at the school. Many law students tend to have some unusual quirk to their personality. The perception that U of A is a 'party' school is overblown, in my opinion. Especially after first year. There are a few people who like to 'go out' but not everyone. When you are out socially, everyone is friendly and open. That was a really nice feature of the school.
The City of Edmonton is becoming more 'trendy' in an underground hipster kind of way. The U of A is located in Old Strathcona which is a very diverse area that is filled with students, independent retail and restaurants and bars. The population of the greater City area is about 1.4 million. You will find cool neighbourhoods and stuff to do. But there are rougher areas as well. I do not agree with the claim that there is 'nothing to do'. You can go to small coffee shops, a few of Canada's 'best new restaurants', concerts and events, festivals, etc. The City is not quite as urban as Toronto or Montreal, however. The city is more politically left wing than anywhere else in Alberta, if that is your thing. Some Edmonton residents are pretty standard suburban white people.
I won't comment on this as I understand the department has been revamped and is under new leadership this year.
Upper year courses are varied and there are many niche courses. You can take a full complement of in depth business law courses (like trusts, judgment enforcement, personal property security, etc), international law (public intl. law, intl. human rights, intl. environment, intl. criminal); aboriginal law, health law, etc. This is a strength but it could still be improved further with more specialized courses.
The popular upper=year courses fill up on the day registration opens, but usually spaces will open up in September if you really want to get in. This is a weaker area - there seems to be more demand than spaces for a number of courses and students are inevitably disappointed every year. This was one of my frustrations at U of A law.
The library is physically large meaning that you can generally find a place to study. As for library holdings, they are extensive, but some of the titles are out of date due to budget reductions. Librarians are a mixed bag, there are a few really excellent librarians who can really help you with legal research, while others are less capable and don't understand the law (but do understand libraries).
The Law Centre is a modernist, brutalist style building that has had various modifications over the years which has debased its original elegant concrete and glass character. If you don't like architecture from that era you won't like it.
Beautiful. The U of A campus is enormous. If you want to get away from the law building there are many other areas to study that are comfortable and tucked away. There are a variety of food stalls in hub mall which provide cheap and tasty meals. Very nice (but busy) gym and sports complex on campus. Two decent on-campus bars. (Law Centre is near a few off-campus bars as well)
U of A students get jobs mostly in Alberta, with an emphasis on Edmonton, many more in Calgary, and rural areas. I know of several who are articling in Toronto as well. Vancouver is not a great legal market...salaries are the same or lower than Edmonton but housing is twice as much.
All in all
Choose a law school in a province where you want to practice. And have fun!! Law school will be a time like no other in your life: challenging, fast paced, intense and possibly life changing. The U of A is a very good law school and I have not regretted my decision to attend.
One other thing I would add is that the U of A is not a hand-holding school. Don't expect to have everything spelled out and arranged for you. For some of my peers I think this was a bit tough. Whether it comes to graduation requirements, class selection, extra-curricular activities to participate in, social decisions, scholarship availability, or grading, you will be treated as an adult and you will have to look for your own path and do your own research. Some other schools might take a more active approach to things like this than the U of A. This mindset extends to the larger university administration which you might encounter if you get involved with a non-law extra curricular group or wish to take one of your options outside of law (which you are allowed to do).