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New law school a step closer to reality

|Written By Robert Todd

Northern Ontario has inched closer to having its own law school after the Law Society of Upper Canada gave preliminary approval last week to a bid from Lakehead University.

But, while the law society benchers voted overwhelmingly in support of the initiative by the Thunder Bay school, some voiced concerns and voted against it.

The Law Society of Upper Canada has given preliminary approval to a proposal to launch a new law school at Lakehead University, shown here.

Bencher Bob Aaron said the law society should commission a study into the demand for lawyers in Ontario before moving ahead with the approval of any new law schools.

“How many lawyers does the province of Ontario need?” asked Aaron. “Do you think we should be studying that?”

Bencher Laurie Pawlitza, chairwoman of the professional development and competence committee, said the law society likely doesn’t want to fund such a study without knowing if the proposed school will get government approval.

Bencher Vern Krishna - a member of the National Committee on Accreditation, which must make a recommendation on the Lakehead proposal - said the motion passed by Convocation on April 24 was “unusual.”

The motion informed the NCA, which is a subcommittee of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, that LSUC believes Lakehead’s “proposal is an important initiative. The proposal appears to have sound and persuasive objectives.

It is worthy of careful consideration.”

Krishna said it’s uncommon for the law society to pass a proposal on to another governing body with a qualifier.

The professional development and competence committee also isn’t convinced that the Lakehead law school would have access to enough articling and co-op positions.

Noting that articling positions have been sparse in northern Ontario and other rural parts of the province, the report states that the law society is concerned that “insufficient commitments have been obtained to date to implement a co-op program and between 45-55 articling jobs.”

Lakehead sent surveys to 123 firms in northwestern Ontario to see if they would accept co-op or articling students, the report stated. While one-third of the questionnaires were returned, indicating a total of 10 to 15 spots would be available, Lakehead estimates that 20 to 30 more positions will likely also exist, based on the assumption that firms not responding to the survey would offer support.

The committee doubted that forecast.

“Moreover, given the focus on a co-operative program, each student would be seeking two placements, one for the co-op placement and one for articling, thereby doubling the number of positions that must be found,” the report stated.

The committee acknowledged that it’s difficult to gauge future commitments when the faculty has yet to form.

“Further, the committee acknowledges that its concern is not unique to Lakehead, as established law faculties will have to consider more significant efforts to assist their students to obtain positions, given the likely shortage of positions in the future,” stated the report.

The law society’s licensing and accreditation task force in January reported that the current demand for about 1,300 articling placements in Ontario is expected to grow to 1,730 - a 30 per cent jump - by next year.

The Lakehead proposal also could be affected by a pair of task forces at LSUC and the federation that are weighing possible changes to the way lawyers are licensed.

The LSUC report stated, “Commenting on the Lakehead proposal in the context of those requirements would be of little assistance to Lakehead, the National Committee on Accreditation, or the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. This is particularly true given that the requirements are likely to change following the reporting of the task forces.”

The report says that the law society’s current requirements, which were drawn up in 1957, with small revisions in 1969, are “out of date and do not reflect a modern, national approach.”

Lakehead president Frederick Gilbert, who believes the pending task force reports shouldn’t slow down the school’s approval, said in his executive summary of the proposal that the law faculty would address the decline of sole and small firm practice; create better access to legal education for northern Ontario students; deal with legal issues involving northern Ontario’s resource-based economy; and focus on aboriginal law.

The school would accept 55 students each year, with preference given to those from rural, northern, or aboriginal communities, said Gilbert in his summary. Lakehead hopes to have the new faculty up and running by next year.

Members of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation, the County and District Law Presidents’ Association, and other individuals approached Lakehead about creating a law school, said Gilbert.

McGill University law professor Roderick Macdonald, who conducted an external review of the proposal, has signed off on Lakehead’s plans, and the school has at least one influential backer.

“There is a need for more aboriginal and non-aboriginal lawyers who have a clear understanding of the law as it applies to key aboriginal issues,” said former prime minister Paul Martin in a letter to LSUC Treasurer Gavin MacKenzie. “I fully support Lakehead University in this endeavour and urge the law society to give its backing to the proposal as soon as possible.”

The Ontario Law Deans, however, gave a cool response to Lakehead’s proposal.

In a letter to an LSUC policy counsel, Osgoode Hall Law School Dean Patrick Monahan said the deans aren’t satisfied by the proposed curriculum for the school. The deans believe too many non-law courses will be offered for credit, and that the courses won’t provide a sufficiently “broad ranging” legal education.

But Gilbert tells Law Times in an interview that the deans’ reaction was based on an incomplete view of the proposed school’s curriculum, and that their concerns “are not of substance.”

LSUC’s preliminary backing was an important first step, and Gilbert says it was vital for the proposal to have the support of the governing body for the jurisdiction in which it will operate. But a lengthy set of approvals must come before the final go-ahead.

Canadian law societies in the early 1990s put a committee of the federation in charge of assessing and recommending to them whether they should recognize new law school programs. Since 1994, that responsibility has been given to the federation’s National Committee on Accreditation.

So after the NCA releases its recommendations, each of the federation’s 14 member law societies, including LSUC, must pass Lakehead’s proposal through their governing body. The NCA and the law societies are to base their decision on “whether a law program is such that its graduates will be entitled to enter provincial bar admission programs without having to satisfy any additional requirements,” according to the LSUC report.

The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities must also approve any new law faculties in the province, and it uses different criteria than the federation and law societies, according to the report.

Lakehead’s proposal also may end up competing against expected law school proposals from Laurentian

University in Sudbury, the University of Waterloo, and Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo.

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