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Demand for law school spots high
By Christopher Guly

October 01 2010 issue



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Part 2  - the present - of a 3-part series on law schools

See part 1 of our series, on the past, here, and part 3 on the future here

Long gone are the days when getting into law school and finding an articling position after graduation in Canada was largely based on good grades. Law students today face an admissions and articles placement process as competitive as the legal environment in which many hope to practise.

But over time, the calibre of students and the training they receive have arguably become higher and more diversified.

The students have got to be good, considering that it's more difficult to be accepted by a Canadian common law school than it is at virtually any other law school in the English-speaking world, according to Brent Cotter, former dean of the University of Saskatchewan's College of Law, who has kept an eye on admission trends over the past three decades.

He says that last year, there were about 24,000 applications for 2,696 places at Canada's 16 common law schools. Since most people apply to more than one law school, he estimates that roughly 10,000 people would have sought admission to a Canadian law school — or nearly 500 more than in 1985 when about 2,200 students were enrolled in Canadian common law schools.
By contrast, Cotter says that in the United States, there were an estimated 83,000 applications for some 45,000 places at 190 American Bar Association (ABA)-approved law schools in 2009.

'It's significantly easier to get into an ABA-approved law school, on average, than it is to get into a common law school in Canada.'

It's so much easier to study law in the U.S. that there are concerns about whether or not some schools there should be restricting admissions to students with higher academic credentials, says Mary Anne Bobinski, dean of the University of British Columbia's (UBC) faculty of law in Vancouver, who was born and studied law in the U.S. and previously taught law at the University of Houston Law Center where she also served as director of its health law and policy institute.

But while the standards may be generally higher in Canada, she points out that admissions aren't only based on the quality of applicants.

'We try to balance admissions standards and enrollments against the availability of articling positions,' says Bobinski, who also serves as president of the Ottawa-based Council of Canadian Law Deans.

'It's a significant time commitment of three years and of money to go to law school, and we don't want to be in a position of admitting people without a reasonable prospect that they would have an opportunity to secure articling positions at the end of their law school education.'

In 2009, UBC's law school had 557 full-time J.D. students, but also had 1,754 applicants for 180 first-year positions.

However, if recent trends are any indication, those students could face a challenge in securing articles.

'It's taking some students longer to find articling positions and they're not always getting their top pick in terms of geography,' says Pamela Cyr, director of career services at UBC's law school.

Normally, about five of the university's top law graduates end up working with firms in New York or Hong Kong — but not this year.

In the Big Apple, where the effects of the recent economic downturn have been acute, major firms there have not only drastically reduced the number of summer associates they take on, some are even paying recent grads — typically from Ivy League law schools — as much as US$70,000 to delay coming on board for a year.

Most UBC law grads, however, stay closer to home. About three-quarters of them usually secure articling positions in Vancouver.

But it's taking some of them a full year to find a spot following graduation, says Cyr, a 1999 University of Victoria law grad who worked as a litigation lawyer in Vancouver until joining UBC's law school in July 2008, just months before the recession hit later that fall.

When UBC law grads find an articling position, it's not necessarily their first choice — Vancouver — but in a small urban centre, such as Kelowna, or in more rural communities of B.C. But through the Real Education and Access to Lawyers (REAL) initiative of the Canadian Bar Association's B.C. branch, about 20 UBC second-year law students who obtain summer jobs at firms end up articling there too, says Cyr, who adds that 35 per cent of grads end up articling with a downtown Vancouver firm.

She points out that in smaller firms, UBC law grads might also get to do more work on their own files and have more contact with clients, and may be on a faster track to partnership compared to their peers who might end up in a large urban firm and only write memos or do research during their articles. In some Vancouver firms, the hire-back rate of articling students to associates has also decreased over the past two years.

Based on anecdotal information she has obtained from her counterparts at other Canadian law schools, Cyr says only three regions or cities — Atlantic Canada, Ottawa and Winnipeg — have not seen any significant decrease in articling opportunities for grads as a result of the tighter economy.

In Ontario, a growing number of law grads, coupled with a steady influx of foreign-trained lawyers — especially in Toronto — has become 'a freight train heading at the profession,' and the scarcity of articling positions is the 'bottleneck' on that track, says Lorne Sossin, the new dean of Osgoode Hall Law School of York University.

While the Law Society of Upper Canada recently reaffirmed the importance of articling as an important part of legal education and eligibility for admission to the Ontario Bar, he believes that a profession regulated in the public interest should not depend solely on the 'private economic well-being of a particular set of firms at a particular point in time.

'Though Osgoode Hall law grads have had tremendous success in securing articles, I would love to see an environment where we had not just articling but other pathways for licensing, such as a program where we could simulate the articling process in a more structured learning environment akin to a model being pioneered in Australia. This way, we wouldn't be shutting the doors to the profession on those who couldn't find articles, which is especially important where students facing cultural or linguistic barriers may find it even more difficult to secure articling positions.'

The University of Toronto's (U of T) law school has always enjoyed 'very high rates' of placing students in articling positions — 'even through economic bumps,' says Dean Mayo Moran.

'We have very, very few third-year students still seeking articles in third year.'

Still, she believes more positions should be created — particularly in both smaller firms and in smaller communities — and welcomes the fact that the law society is exploring ways to create additional spots through job sharing between students-at-law at firms.

Another solution may emerge from a partnership between the Ontario Bar Association's (OBA) Student Division Executive (SDE) and the Law Society of Upper Canada.

During the current academic year, law schools from across the province will bus in students to a session the law society will host in Toronto in November that will explore options for articling beyond Canada's largest city and other major urban areas in Ontario.

'The focus now is usually Bay Street and opportunities in smaller centres are often overlooked by students,' says 2010 Queen's University law school grad Julia Lefebvre, who chairs the OBA's SDE and who is currently articling at Toronto-based litigation firm, Lenczner Slaght.

She adds that the cost of tuition ($12,159 a year for a full-time Queen's student in 2009-2010) and insufficient representation of students from rural and remote areas at Ontario's law schools are issues that also need to be addressed.

On the diversity front, the U of T's faculty of law instituted, in May, an optional 10-month intensive program of academic courses, workshops and short-term work placements for about 95 internationally trained lawyers interested in practising in Ontario, before they commence the Federation of Law Societies of Canada's National Committee on Accreditation licensing process.

And while the law school is providing career support to lawyers from around the world, it's also helping its own students prepare for work on a global scale through such U of T initiatives as the International Human Rights Program's legal education clinic that prepares students to argue human rights cases before foreign courts and criminal tribunals.

Moran — who is also the Ontario region representative on the Council of Canadian Law Deans — says interest in such training reflects the globalization of law — a trend that is also present within the university's law school.

Of the 600 full-time students enrolled in the U of T law school's 2009-2010 academic year, 53 per cent were women and 29 per cent reflected various minority groups.

'There's a tremendous amount of diversity — linguistic, ethnic and religious — that was not there when I began teaching 15 years ago,' says Moran, who notes that about one in three of the school's law students also have graduate degrees. Many pursue others while studying law — and have 13 combined-degree programs to choose from, including a J.D. with an M.B.A., or a J.D. with a Ph.D. in either philosophy, economics or political science — or a J.D. with a master's degree in several disciplines, including criminology and English literature.

Osgoode Hall's Sossin says that inasmuch as it's highly competitive for prospective students to gain entry into Canadian law schools, there is tremendous competition among the schools themselves to attract the best and the brightest and who have choices as to which law school to attend.

'One way to do that is by differentiating yourself from other schools.'

He explains that Osgoode — Ontario's oldest common law school, established by the Law Society of Upper Canada in 1889 — does that by emphasizing experiential learning in a range of settings, from the classroom to clinics to hands-on learning, 'to bring ideas into action.'

For instance, Osgoode Hall students can take intensive programs in poverty law at Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto's west end and participate in the student-run Community and Legal Aid Services Program on campus. Or, they can tackle cases of suspected wrongful conviction through the New York-based Innocence Project, or pursue public interest work through different programs, including Pro Bono Students Canada, the only national program of its kind in the world.

Osgoode Hall also offers several joint-degree programs, including a recent four-year double J.D. with the New York University School of Law.

Sossin says that Canadian law schools are also increasingly focusing on particular areas where they may have strengths — often based on geography, such as marine law in the Maritimes, or oil and gas law in Alberta.

In major urban centres, such as Toronto, attention is paid to 'city building.' For instance, Osgoode Hall has an Osgoode Public Interest Requirement (OPIR) through which law students earn credit by devoting at least 40 hours to a community or pro bono project — the only Canadian law school with such a program.

While Osgoode runs a large school (828 J.D. students in 2009), it also keeps its classes manageable in size: 75 students for first year and reduced to 25 for smaller group instruction. But demand for those spaces is high.

Last year, 2,750 people applied for admission at Osgoode Hall; 585 first-year offers were made and 289 students ended up enrolling in first year.

'It's more competitive than it has ever been — and inevitably, that leaves a group of people who are extremely accomplished and committed without a spot at a Canadian law school.' says Sossin, a 1992 Osgoode Hall LL.B. grad, who began teaching law there 13 years ago before moving to the U of T and, as of this year, returning to Osgoode as its dean.

He explains that one solution may be to create more law schools, which is underway with the planned opening of a new one, next fall, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., in partnership with the University of Calgary's law school — along with a proposed Ontario law school at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and possible others at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto, Laurentian University in Sudbury, the University of Waterloo and nearby Wilfrid Laurier University.

A private university in B.C., University Canada West, has also sought approval from the provincial government to establish a law school.

However, as Sossin says, new schools will depend on the willingness of provincial governments to become funding partners of such ventures.

Meanwhile, existing law schools face significant expenditures in training future lawyers.

'Legal education as it is delivered today is a lot more expensive than it has been historically where you had one faculty member being brilliant in front of a large class,' says UBC's Bobinski, a 1989 Harvard Law School LL.M. graduate.

'Classes are taught in a more active learning environment with more clinical programs and the like, all of which are more expensive to deliver but which also offer students a wider range of knowledge and skills relevant to their chosen practice area. At the same time, we're making sure law school remains accessible to the best students, regardless of their financial situation.'

'That's a tough challenge for all law schools.'

She says that UBC's law school is developing a scholarship program with regional B.C. Bar associations that would provide financial aid to prospective students from those areas and perhaps encourage them to return to their communities to practise law.

The law school is also creating an endowment for third-year students that would reduce the cost of their final year in exchange for a commitment to launch their legal careers in a rural or underserved community.

Elsewhere, the focus on access looks to the North.

Not far from UBC, the University of Victoria's (UVic) law school was involved in the creation of Akitsiraq Law School, which gave Inuit students of Nunavut an opportunity to pursue an LL.B. from UVic in Iqaluit earlier in the decade. More recently, the University of Ottawa's common law school tried to revive the four-year program, which has been stalled due to lack of funding.

Meantime, the lineup to study at one of Canada's 22 law schools (six of them offering civil law degrees) continues to grow.

'Relative to the small number of law schools we have, there's far more demand for a spot than there is in most of our peer jurisdictions, in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia,' says Osgoode Hall's Sossin.

'There hasn't been a new law school in Canada for over 30 years [since the Universitι de Moncton's law school was established in 1978], even though the population has been expanding rapidly across the country, particularly in urban areas. So, there's tremendous pressure when it comes to access to legal education — every available spot is hotly contested.

'But I also think the growing interest in people wanting to go to law school is a testament to both the resilience of law as a profession and law as an area of study.'


Ontario placements

In 2002, 94.8 per cent of students who entered the Bar admission course and who were actively looking for an articling position were placed within six months of the usual start of articling, according to the Law Society of Upper Canada. By the end date of the usual articling term (June 2003), all of the equity-seeking, self-identified student groups (aboriginal, disability, gay and lesbian, mature and visible minority) had a placement rate of more than 90 per cent. Francophone students experienced a rate of 88.4 per cent.

More recently, 93.1 per cent of all 2009 licensing process candidates had secured an articling position by June 2010 — a placement rate roughly the same as last year's at 93.4 per cent, according to the law society.

Of the 2009 candidates, 27.7 per cent self-identified as members of an equality-seeking community (aboriginal, persons with a disability, francophone, gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgendered, mature, racialized community), who in turn had an articling placement rate of 89.7 per cent.

Based on the results of a voluntary survey — to which 84 per cent of candidates responded — the hire-back rate of candidates returning to the firm with which they articled was 42.8 per cent, a 1.5 per cent decrease from last year's survey. As well, 55.5 per cent of candidates indicated that they had secured some type of employment at the June 2010 call to the Bar — a 2.1 per cent drop from last year's results (57.6 per cent) and a 10.2 per cent decrease since June 2008.


Profile - Articling student eyes litigation

By the time Omar Ha-Redeye entered the University of Western Ontario's (UWO) law school three years ago, he had already pursued careers in nuclear medicine technology, health and emergency management, and public relations.

The chance to explore 'a brand new world' drew him to law. But the 32-year-old, Hamilton-born 2010 UWO J.D. graduate admits that studying it was challenging, beyond the rigours of grasping new information and ideas.

'There is enormous emphasis on grades and competitiveness emerged from that,' he says.

And it was competitive.

Ha-Redeye recalls attending an information session on UWO's Community Legal Services during his first year. It ended at around 5 p.m. and students interested in becoming involved in the law school's legal aid clinic could sign up, based on a first-come, first-served basis (since replaced with an interview system), early the following morning.

'The lineup started five minutes before the information session even ended and people stayed through the night in the rain,' says Ha-Redeye.

'I arrived at 3:30 a.m., and I was too late.'

So, he created his own opportunities to augment his studies.

Ha-Redeye established the Western Law Review Association, a group dedicated to publishing a student-run law review at UWO, and was active in various groups on campus, including as president of the Black Law Students' Association, Health Law Club and Mature Students Club.

But his activities are best known in cyberspace.

Even before being called to the Ontario Bar, Ha-Redeye has made an impression on the profession with his blogs and postings on legal issues.

He runs his own website (www.omarha-redeye.com), as well as a blog and podcast on Canadian law schools (www.lawiscool.com) and regularly contributes to the legal weblog, www.Slaw.ca.

Now, he's on the path to practising law.

Currently, a student-at-law at Fireman Steinmetz, a litigation boutique in Toronto, Ha-Redeye is also one of two articling student ambassadors from Toronto that serve on the executive of the Ontario Bar Association's student division.

In that role, he brings forward students' interests and concerns for both the profession and the academy.

Some are practical, such as pressing the Ontario Bar Association to reinstate free membership for Ontario law students, which will give them access to events in which they could network with practising lawyers and inevitably encourage them to join the organization following their own call to the Bar.

Other issues are more far-reaching.

While at UWO, Ha-Redeye was struck by how many students were affected by depression and loneliness.

'Quite often when people are studying, they're doing it themselves. It's not a very collaborative environment and you don't have as much interaction with others.'

Ha-Redeye explains that compounding this silo effect are the enormous demands placed on students by their workload and anxiety over finding an articling position — and ultimately a job — at a law firm following graduation.

As a result, he would like to see law schools provide better social supports to students to ensure they maintain proper work-life balance.

Ha-Redeye says he survived school-related stress by recognizing his own limitations and carving out his own path.

Knowing he couldn't compete with younger colleagues with the stamina to endure endless hours in the library, he spent his first 18 months of law school working part-time at former Ontario Trial Lawyers Association president Barbara Legate's London, Ont.-based medical malpractice and personal injury firm to gain experience.

Legate is also certified as a specialist in civil litigation by the Law Society of Upper Canada — a credential Ha-Redeye might like to have one day.

At UWO, Ha-Redeye won or was a finalist in more than half of the law school's upper-year appellate moot courts — an unprecedented accomplishment, he was told by his professors.

'With that record, I can approach a litigation firm as someone who can research issues, identify what the important points are and articulate them in a high-pressure situation before a judge,' boasts Ha-Redeye.

'There's definitely a litigator within me without question.'


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