Time to debate overhaul of legal education

In mid-February, I received a letter from the new dean at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law asking me to consider donating to its student financial aid program.

I’m sure thousands of alumni got the same letter. The dean’s letter told us Ontario lags behind other provinces in government support for higher education. The letter didn’t mention that, at more than $30,000, the dean’s law faculty has the highest tuition across the province and the country. For that information, you could read the sad tale in the Toronto Star recently about law students at the University of Toronto trying to support their colleagues by giving up a day of pay. The idea, which organizers have since decided not to pursue, was that students with summer jobs would offer to give up one day of wages to support those with unpaid social justice jobs.

There is something very wrong with this picture.   

The dean’s letter asks for donations to preserve the faculty’s “tradition of accessibility.” I doubt many young people growing up in poverty in this province would characterize that law faculty as providing an accessible education. As the United Way reported recently, Toronto is the income inequality capital of Canada. The report identified the top priority as access to jobs for young people. It also highlighted jobs as a pathway to stability and emphasized the need to remove barriers based on circumstances.

The dean’s letter included an insert from a current student, Hana, telling us that at the University of Toronto, “meritocracy continues to diversify the student body and challenge the assumption that socioeconomic status limits what promising young students can achieve.”

Notwithstanding the hopeful message from Hana, surely we have to acknowledge that socioeconomic status does in fact limit what promising young students can do. It limits whether they can pay law faculty tuition of more than $30,000 a year; it limits whether they can accept volunteer work for the summer; it limits whether they can follow the career path I followed when I graduated from the same school that focused on a poverty law practice at legal clinics for 15 years.

The dean’s package tells us that because of donor support, Hana has had the opportunity to represent low-income clients at Downtown Legal Services, compete in mooting competitions, and contribute to scholarly publications. I took advantage of the same opportunities when I was in law school and my tuition was less than $1,000 a year. I note with affection that several of the professors who taught me are still at the law school decades later. They were great teachers who engaged with their students and their communities. I doubt the position, put forward by the law school, that the massive tuition hike was necessary to keep them all from running off to American universities.

Ontario law schools recruit students with dreams of changing the world for the better and Hana is no exception. Perhaps alumni and faculty, not students, should give up a day of earnings to support Hana and other students like her. But more importantly, we need to start a new conversation in the profession about what a truly accessible legal education would look like going forward. What are the costs that are driving tuition up and how important are those items to the students and the actual education of competent and well-prepared lawyers as opposed to the quest for excellence at our law schools?

Our law schools send their graduates out into an employment market with increasingly limited opportunities. Given the shortage of articling positions and the need to establish the Law Practice Program with additional fees and, in some cases, unpaid placements, now is the time to consider a more fundamental overhaul of legal education in this province. Why aren’t our law schools leading the way in starting that discussion?  

Kathy Laird is executive director of the Human Rights Legal Support Centre. She served for a number of years as a vice chairwoman at the human rights board of inquiry and the Pay Equity Hearings Tribunal. She’s a recipient of the Society of Ontario Adjudicators and Regulators award for outstanding contribution to the administrative justice system in Ontario.

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