Lakehead and Ryerson trying to chart different path

When Hayley Yorke was deciding between the University of Ottawa law school and the then-new law program at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., she chose Lakehead even though it seemed like the underdog.

Lakehead and Ryerson trying to chart different path
Duncan Macgillivray, a personal injury lawyer who teaches insurance law at Lakehead University’s law school, says unlike Lakehead, Ryerson’s new law school will have to break into the saturated Toronto market.

When Hayley Yorke was deciding between the University of Ottawa law school and the then-new law program at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., she chose Lakehead even though it seemed like the underdog.

“I think all of the students are aware that LU is an underdog. We don’t have a huge group of alumni or, for example, resources for a national moot team. But you have to start somewhere, and we’re in an articling crisis, and LU is doing things differently,” says Yorke, now working at O’Neill Associates, a boutique human resource, labour and employment firm in Thunder Bay. She expects to be called to the bar in September.

Lakehead law graduates start working sooner than the average Ontario law student thanks to Integrated Practice Curriculum, a practical skills and work placement-based curriculum that stands in for articling in the licensure process.

Students take traditional law school classes, but they are also required to complete skills-based assessments such as oral advocacy, written advocacy, writing factums, mock motions and participating in mock trials. Some courses also require experiential learning, such as Lakehead’s Aboriginal Perspective, which requires 36 hours of fieldwork. The program is capped by a work placement program for four months.

A new crop of students will soon make a similar choice between established programs and a proposed new one: Ryerson University is aiming to open a brand-new law school in 2020, the first in the Toronto area in more than a century.

Ryerson’s proposed curriculum to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, which grants approval for new law schools, also includes a third-year work placement program, but it does not stand in for articling in the licensure process.

The Ryerson law school must get program approval from the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, says Anver Saloojee, dean of record for Ryerson. It is the last step of the external approval process. During that process, which could last six to nine months, the school will also likely find out its level of provincial funding. The school is asking for $5,700 per student, amounting to a little more than $2.3 million, “assuming a steady state enrolment across all three years of study of about 410 full-time equivalent students.”

Lakehead’s most recent funding was $5,500 with 279 basic income units, a spokesman said. BIUs are funding units defined by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. 

Ryerson’s graduates will enter an increasingly competitive workforce — there is expected to be 1.6 new licensed lawyers for every one practising position in Ontario by 2025, according to a projection by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

“They [Ryerson] are going to have some similar challenges: building a faculty of professors, creating a positive student culture, all those types of things,” says Duncan Macgillivray, a personal injury lawyer who teaches insurance law at Lakehead and works with students in his role as partner at boutique Thunder Bay firm White Macgillivray Lester LLP. “I think one different challenge is that you will have a bunch more students trying to break into the Toronto market, which I think is saturated.”

Yorke says she isn’t worried about Lakehead students competing with Ryerson graduates for jobs: “I don’t think we are even on their radar,” she says. 

“You’re so far away from your family and everything,” Yorke says of the idea that Toronto-raised students at Ryerson would choose to practise in the north. “Firms will probably see that you came from southern Ontario; they are going to want people who want to stay in the north.” 

About 38 per cent of third-year students at Lakehead’s law program do their work placement at a firm in northwestern Ontario, north of and including Sudbury, says Hope Buset, director of Student Services and Skills at the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead. Another nine per cent of Lakehead third-year students work in northeastern Ontario, while 11 per cent work in small towns south of Sudbury and four per cent work in medium-sized towns south of Sudbury, leaving the remaining 18 per cent practising in the general Toronto area.

“There is a shortage of lawyers in certain small communities, but I don’t think adding a Toronto law school will help,” says Macgillivray. “Toronto is the megacity. I don’t think there are going to be a lot of Ryerson graduates that want to practise in Atikokan or Sault Ste. Marie. That was part of the Lakehead idea, to get lawyers into smaller communities. And some of them have gone. But is another law school the answer? I think they like to frame it that way when they are applying to become a law school, but it’s not that easy.”

Lawyers outside of the Toronto area are more likely to be sole practitioners. About 50 per cent of Ontario’s lawyers are outside the Toronto area, according to statistics from the Law Society of Ontario. But 58 per cent of lawyers outside of the Toronto area are labelled sole practitioner (although it includes sole owners who employ other licensees).

The different legal needs law graduates are expected to address in Toronto and Thunder Bay are highlighted by a provincial report called the “Strategic Mandate Agreement,” released by the government for each university when the Liberals were in power in Ontario. The report is designed to be relevant from 2017 to 2020. The purpose of the report is to outline “the role the University currently performs in Ontario’s postsecondary education system and how each school will help drive ‘government priorities.’” It is “not intended to capture all decisions and issues in the postsecondary education system, as many will be addressed through the Ministry’s policies and standard processes,” the report says.

Of Ryerson’s proposal, the strategic mandate says it is “an innovative law program that enhances access to justice for Canadians and responds to the present and future needs of users of legal services and to the needs of society and the profession.”

But it also says, “While the ministry acknowledges the aspirations of Ryerson University in this regard, at this time the ministry will not support a new Law School in Ontario for operating funding consideration.”

A ministry spokeswoman said that the agreement was written during the Liberal administration and that the current provincial government has not made a decision on the Ryerson law school.

The SMA for Lakehead University mainly mentions the law school in terms of Lakehead University Community Legal Services, a student legal aid clinic. The SMA report calls the clinic “an exciting way for Lakehead students to have a dynamic, hands-on learning experience, while at the same time providing a much-needed service to the Thunder Bay community.”

Lakehead’s law program has had its own struggles. The previous dean, Angelique EagleWoman, resigned this year after two “hectic” years, alleging systemic racism and “challenges both inside the law school and from the senior administration,” she told Canadian Lawyer. A Lakehead spokesman says the search for a new dean is “well underway.”

Anthony Morgan, a human rights lawyer based in Toronto, says that adding more law school slots could help broaden access to legal education to those who need it most, such as racial minorities or people who identify as queer or transgender, even if they don’t plan to practise law.

Saloojee thinks students at Ryerson will have a leg up in finding jobs, even though the Law Society of Ontario’s May report to Convocation on licensure says that only 10 per cent of Ontario law firms offer articling placements.

“I think our curricular focus will position our students in a way that they can both engage in the labour market and, we believe, also become potential employers and creators of job opportunities down the line as well. A lot of the data shows that people coming out of primary school and high school will be entering jobs that they can’t even conceive of today. We hope our students will be on the cutting edge of creating those kinds of jobs as well,” Saloojee says.

Brigid Wilkinson practises at Evans Bragagnolo & Sullivan LLP in Haileybury, Ont. and is the Federation of Ontario Law Associations’ northeast regional representative. She says that entrepreneurialism — another focus of the Ryerson program — is more important than students realize, whether they are in a small town or big city.

 “I find that when people go to law school they have a very specific idea of what they want to do and that changes once they hit law school. When I worked on Bay Street, I just did a particular type of litigation. Here, if you were a litigation lawyer, you would do everything. You would do contracts, you would do employment, some family, some criminal,” Wilkinson says. “The entrepreneurial spirit is certainly required. Whenever I read all of these articles about how there aren’t enough jobs or positions, it seems people expect someone to give them a job. There’s a lack of comprehension that you need to create your own job.”

Teaching students how to deliver services online has been proposed, including by Ryerson, as a way to increase access to justice. But technology is no “silver bullet” when it comes to access to justice in rural Ontario either, says Wilkinson.

“People think technology is automatically the solution,” Wilkinson says. “The barrier to that, which is a solvable barrier but not something the legal profession can change, is accessibility to internet. It’s not something that everyone in this province has, especially high-speed internet. . . . [T]here are certainly times when I cannot communicate with my students, because I don’t have good enough internet in a rural community.”

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