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Wilfrid Laurier throws hat in for law school

|Written By Helen Burnett

Wilfrid Laurier University is vying to be home to one of Ontario’s next law schools, Law Times has learned. But the Kitchener-based institution must wait for the Law Society of Upper Canada to complete its first review of law program requirements in 38 years.

There is a perception that a law school would be a good fit with Laurier at this time, considering the programs available at the university and the area, says Max Blouw.

Wilfrid Laurier is the second in recent months to make a similar bid: last year, Lakehead University also put forward a proposal for the creation and accreditation of the first new law school in Canada since the University of Calgary in 1979. The plan is under review.

In a report to Convocation this month, the professional development and competence committee said that Wilfrid Laurier has submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities for a law school.

Wilfrid Laurier president and vice chancellor Max Blouw tells Law Times that there is a perception that law would be a good fit with Laurier at this time, considering the programs available at the university and the area.

“With respect to the Kitchener-Waterloo area as a hub of intellectual property development around the technology sector, [there is] a tremendous need for specialized legal training, legal knowledge, and a need for more bodies,” he says.

Blouw adds that the school also draws many students from rural centres, where lawyers often practice in a small firm or sole practitioner setting.

“One of the things that we were thinking is that we could focus our efforts in part on educating lawyers to be particularly proficient at practicing in those sorts of settings,” he says.

However, while a letter of intent was submitted to the ministry in June, Blouw says the process is on hiatus because the law society announced earlier this year that it would be carrying out a review of its requirements for law programs through its newly created licensing and accreditation task force. At the time, Convocation voted not to consider any new proposals for law schools in the province until after it completes its review.

Last reviewed in 1969, the task force noted that the requirements are “woefully outdated to address the reality of the legal profession in the 21st century.”

As a result, the ministry will not accept the proposal until the law society has completed its work, after which it will hear the law society’s conclusions and go forward from there, says Blouw.

Shereen Rowe, director of faculty relations at Wilfrid Laurier, says that the school has provided a copy of its proposal to the law society, which has indicated that it will keep the school informed throughout the review process.

Blouw adds that the task force is reportedly set to finish its work in the summer of 2008, when the school will have a better sense of whether the law society will support a new program and the type of new program proposed.

“I think what we’re thinking about here at Laurier is perhaps a little bit different in its flavour and its orientation from the other law programs in the province,” he says.

Rowe says the school met with many members of the local legal community regarding the proposal, including the Waterloo Law Association, which endorsed the proposal through a motion.

“I think they recognize that it will help them to draw good articling students and lawyers and keep people here. It also serves as an opportunity for ongoing continuing legal education locally,” she says. The school is proposing an initial intake of 70 to 80 students, she says.

Meanwhile, Lakehead’s proposal was met with some trepidation by benchers earlier this year. Convocation was concerned at the time that it didn’t seem that Lakehead had engaged in any “meaningful discussions” with either the other law schools or the Council of Canadian Law Deans about the feasibility of a northern law school. Thus, Convocation said it was unsure how the school could state that its unmet faculty needs would be met by other law schools in the province.

Another potential problem, according to the committee, was that the school is hoping to place students in co-operative placements and articling positions in the north, noting that research into these placements may not have been “thorough enough.”

Lakehead University president and vice chancellor Fred Gilbert tells Law Times that the university will begin revising its application in a couple of weeks, following months of meetings with its senate committee. “This is consistent with the requests that we got from the law society committee, in that they wanted more detail,” he says.

“We had a very, very useful meeting with the committee and with the working group earlier in the year and that clarified a lot of expectations,” he says.

While the proposal to approve Lakehead’s law school was sent to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities earlier this year, Gilbert says the ministry has postponed its decision until the law society has taken action.

Gilbert says that the university is aiming to have the revised proposal to the law society by next month, and is hoping for action before the end of the year. The law school would ideally be advertising for its new dean early in the new year, he adds.

Since it began its work, the licensing and accreditation task force notes that several universities in Canada and abroad are also examining alternatives to the full-time LLB degree. While the Law Foundation of Ontario is currently studying the desirability of part time LLB studies, Athabasca University is also examining the possibility of a distance-education law program.

Similar to the program in place at Bond University in Queensland, Australia, another Australian law school has expressed interest in developing a program catering to Canadian law students. Distance-education law schools in the United Kingdom are also increasing.

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