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The future of Canadian law schools
By Christopher Guly

October 08 2010 issue


[Illustration by Edward Schnurr for The Lawyers Weekly]
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Part 3  - the future - of a 3-part series on law schools

See part 1 of our series, on the past, here

See part 2 of our series, on the present, here


Change has come to Canadian law schools over the past 25 years.

Recognizing that most students already hold degrees, many law schools now award graduates a Juris Doctor (J.D.) professional degree instead of the more entry-level Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.). More specialized courses are offered and more clinical and hands-on training is available to law students today.

So, what’s next?

By 2015, the J.D. will be the norm and the LL.B. will be officially dead, according to Brent Cotter, the former dean of the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan.

That’s among some of the trends he forecasts  — with some imagination (and tongue, at times, planted firmly in cheek), but does not necessarily endorse.

Another is that five years from now, Canadian law schools will also need to pass “stringent” requirements in order to be accredited.
By 2018, online legal education will be approved in Canada, giving people the opportunity to obtain a law degree by e-correspondence. (That year, law school deans — not Maclean’s magazine — will rank their own schools based on a “more realistic and truer methodology.”)

One year later, Cotter predicts that a Canadian law school will be the first — but not the last — to award an international law degree, accredited both in Canada and by the American Bar Association.

There’s more.

In 2020, he believes that articling will be abolished and replaced with a national entrance exam. One year later, law schools will also train paralegals and other legal service providers, such as mediators. And in 2024, Canada will get its first privately funded law school, “bringing into question the future of the underfunded public law schools of old.”

But they won’t be dead — and there will be more of them than there are today.

By 2025, Canada will have its 25th law school, and it will focus on training and retraining lawyers in northern and rural communities “where they are needed most.”

As Cotter points out, the latter is already a goal for the 17th and latest common law school planned to open at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops, B.C. — in partnership with the University of Calgary’s law school — next autumn, and an objective for the school proposed at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont.

“They would also provide more people with access to a legal education and create opportunities for those who might be interested in practising in the geographic area where the law school is situated and which may be underserved by lawyers.”

While TRU’s new law school is the first in Canada in 32 years, since the Université de Moncton’s was established in 1978, the country should have had more “a long time ago,” according to Chris Axworthy, the founding dean of TRU’s law school.

He says there’s a huge pent-up demand for law studies, with about 2,500 applicants alone in B.C. vying for some 300 places at the province’s existing law schools at the universities of British Columbia (Vancouver) and Victoria.

Axworthy, who most recently served as dean of the University of Manitoba’s law school, estimates that in the absence of available spaces, about 200 Canadians, at any given time, are abroad studying common law in the United Kingdom or Australia at Bond University.

“Students are prepared to go overseas to get a law degree and then come back and go through a whole bunch of hoops to be admitted to articles in Canada.”

He adds that they’re also prepared to spend a lot of money — as much as CDN$90,000 over three years, just for tuition — at Bond U on the other side of the world.

“If you’ve got all those law students leaving the country, there must be a market for law schools back home.”

B.C.’s government recognized that in its February 2009 Throne Speech that authorized the funding of a new law school at TRU. Over the next two months it will begin accepting applications for 60 students and hiring nine faculty members — about the same numbers the University of Calgary’s (U of C) law school began with when it opened in 1976. Studies will focus on natural resources, energy, environmental and First Nations law, and the school hopes to attract aboriginal students, as well as those from B.C.’s interior and northern regions, to its three-year program that will result in a J.D. that recognizes the collaboration with the U of C.

Lorne Sossin, Osgoode Hall Law School of York University’s new dean, believes that more law schools should open.

“We get a whole different perspective when seen through a new program or school. But the key is to ensure funding is in place so that more schools aren’t chasing smaller slices of the same funding pie. We also have to ensure that new schools are genuinely innovative and doing different things and giving students choices in ways existing law schools don’t, and are not just taking a cookie-cutter approach.”

However, there will soon be uniformity for all Canadian common law schools in the form of a new national standard.

Last October, a task force, appointed by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, to review existing academic requirements for entry to Bar admission programs, released its report and recommended there be a national requirement in Canadian common law jurisdictions that would apply equally to applicants educated in both Canada and abroad. This past March, Canada’s common law societies approved the recommendations and a national committee has been struck to implement them in the future.

The report states that accrediting bodies in jurisdictions similar to Canada determine that an applicant for bar admission meets the necessary academic requirements usually either through the successful completion of specific courses or passage of a substantive law bar examination. “In recent years, however, there has been increasing focus on learning outcomes, rather than prescriptive input requirements” — a focus that “represents the appropriate regulatory approach” in the task force’s view.

As a result, it proposed a national requirement based on competencies in basic skills (problem solving, legal research, and oral and written communication skills); awareness of appropriate ethical values (by demonstrating receipt of specific instruction in ethics and professionalism); and “core legal knowledge that law students can reasonably be expected to have acquired during the academic component of their education” — including the foundations of law (such as the principles of common law and equity), Canadian public law (constitutional, criminal, administrative law) and private law principles (contracts, torts, property law, legal and fiduciary concepts in commercial relationships).

“It makes sense for people heading out into the world to not only have academic knowledge and skills, but to be able to use them,” says TRU’s Axworthy, who has taught law at the University of New Brunswick, Dalhousie University and the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, where he also mainly practised First Nations law.

He believes that law schools might also need to revisit the admissions process to ensure that it reflects the needs of the profession. “Not all law schools do very much qualitative analysis other than in a most arbitrary way by looking at GPAs and LSAT scores. But shouldn’t there be something broader than that to assist in the selection process? For law schools, it’s all about making students think differently, and that’s quite a difficult process.”

However, as law schools evolve, they are operating differently, according to Osgoode Hall’s Sossin. He explains that new technologies have transformed the learning experience.

“We used to live in a world where a lot of ideas came from browsing the stacks.”

“But increasingly, that aspect of legal education is more based on how you put together knowledge and analysis,” says Sossin, who prior to his July 1 appointment this year as Osgoode Hall’s dean, served as the inaugural director of the Centre for the Legal Profession at the University of Toronto for two years.

“It’s not about finding books and cases and noting them up, because so much of that is happening online with an overwhelming mass of information and data at different online sites and sources that wasn’t available before. It’s about analyzing that information and bringing some intelligent organization to it for various fields of law. And that creates a new challenge of how do you bring that into the classroom. It’s no longer just about learning the substance of legal subjects, but also learning how to problem-solve issues and concerns from multiple perspectives — clients, regulators, the public, and certainly the courts, tribunals and dispute-resolution decision makers.

“That’s something that’s much more a part of law school than it ever was before.”

He adds that the boundary between curricular and extracurricular activities is “blurring like never before” at law school.

“Previously when you went to law school, stuff happened in the classroom and you pursued outside interests, such as joining a legal organization or volunteering as a mentor at a high school, on your own time,” says Sossin, who holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in law from Columbia Law School in New York.

“Increasingly, the lines are breaking down, and what might be a public interest or pro bono placement is part and parcel of legal education.”

“It’s like legal ethics. It’s not just how you act as you put together an essay or an assignment. It’s also how you interact with recruiters on the career front. The whole experience is a much more integrated one — much livelier, more vibrant than when I was a law student [at Osgoode in the early 1990s].

From Oct. 22 to 23, the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Law will host the Canadian Clinical Legal Education Conference (www.law.uwo.ca/conferences/CanadianLegalEd/index.html) that will look at the future of legal studies in this country and feature guest speakers, including Sossin on whether articling should be abolished (No. The experience should be retained, but it should not be the sole pathway to practising law, in his view).

The two-day workshop will also highlight the 2007 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching report entitled Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law, which endorses the integration of three apprenticeships — cognitive, ethical and practical — for law students in Canada and the U.S., rather than following an additive strategy.

In January, Osgoode — which is undergoing a $50-million facelift — will offer a professional LL.M. specializing in business law with some courses available via videoconferencing. That type of distance education — which Osgoode Hall has pioneered — along with e-learning, can bridge some of the gap in the absence of bricks-and-mortar institutions, says Sossin.

He acknowledges that the profession is leery of such alternative forms of learning over the fear that schools from outside Canada could just “beam in” law programs that would be difficult to regulate. “But I wouldn’t want to see that legitimate concern get in the way of innovation and the development of higher-quality programs that allow people in rural or remote settings get more access to legal education.”

TRU’s Axworthy says that given the backlog of potential law students and in light of the difficulty in recruiting candidates from smaller and remote communities, distance education could be a viable option, since non-traditional, classroom-based programs are available for other professions, such as nursing.

Still, he believes the focus must continue to be on “hands-on, in-class, person-to-person” training to enable students to acquire the skills necessary to “think like a lawyer.

“The Bar is concerned that when students start their first day of articles, they’re not really hitting the ground running in many cases. So, we’re seeing fairly significant requests on the part of the profession for more advocacy programs, more clinical programs, and so on,” says Axworthy, who served as Saskatchewan’s Attorney General earlier in the decade as a member of then-NDP premier Roy Romanow’s cabinet.

“We need to be sure that when law-school graduates apply to article in a province or territory, the law societies are confident those students have a range of competencies that have effectively prepared them to practise law.

“In large measure, our graduates find employment with law firms or in the law field in some way. Therefore, we should also pay attention to what potential employers are saying in terms of the skills they expect and require.”

Certainly, they will benefit from an outstanding pool of talent found among today’s law students.

At 24 years old, Nejeed Kassam has amassed incredible experience for someone of his age.

Holding an honours undergraduate degree in political science from Montreal’s McGill University, Kassam officially founded the organization, End Poverty Now (www.endpovertynow.ca) in 2006, and edited High on Life, a collection of 17 stories “of hope, change and leadership” from young community leaders around the world. Proceeds from the recently published book will go toward the global non-profit organization, Networks for Change (www.networksforchange.org), of which he serves as founder and executive director.

Recently, Kassam — a Vancouver-raised Ismaili Muslim of Indian descent who is also writing a novel about a young Muslim growing up in the U.S. — began a new chapter of his life as a first-year student at Osgoode Hall.

“Education and the cultivation of intellect are lifelong endeavours,” he says of his decision to study law. Sometimes, we work too much or get stagnant in our jobs, and we can lose the ability to keep expanding our growth and knowledge.

“Law permeates every breath we take in the world. It governs the doors we open to our cars to the food we eat. Understanding it is the key to understanding our society and how we can change it and better it.”

Osgoode Hall’s “strong commitment to social justice” is the reason he chose to attend that law school. As for what he plans to do with his degree, Kassam — who worked as a volunteer intern in Liberal B.C. Senator, lawyer and fellow Muslim Mobina Jaffer’s office in Ottawa — is leaving his options open. Maybe he’ll pursue a career on the policy-legislative side on Parliament Hill, or work in the international human rights arena and travel the world.

For now, Kassam has other concerns.

The sheer volume of work involved in attending law school is already cutting into time available for outside interests, including writing — and eventually selling that novel — to cover some of the costs of his schooling.

Osgoode Hall’s tuition — at nearly $18,000 a year — is also a “serious” concern for 34-year-old first-year student Paul Jorgensen.
“It takes so much time to pay off debt, while at the same time trying to save for retirement. It’s something somebody in their 30s worries about more than when they’re in their early 20s.”

Fortunately, his wife, Andrea Janzen, is an architect in Toronto, and he also received a Harley D. Hallett Renewable Entrance Scholarship, which will give him $10,000 a year for three years as long as he remains in the top 20 per cent of his class.
“I’m worried about whether I still have the academic chops,” worries Jorgensen, whose modesty belies his considerable academic achievement to date.

A 2004 University of Toronto Ph.D. graduate in genetics, the Alberta native worked as a post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School and as a senior research associate at the U of T prior to enrolling at Osgoode this year.

But in science, “the opportunities for a good-paying job in Toronto are quite limited,” says Jorgensen, who was inspired to try law by five lawyer friends and a sister, Dalhousie law grad Debbie Jorgensen, who practises in the area of civil litigation with the Toronto firm, Birenbaum Steinberg Landau Savin & Colraine LLP.

“Everything my sister told me about the work she’s doing is fascinating.”

Whether he ends up working for government, or chooses social justice (his sister, who also holds an LL.M. from the U of T, previously worked in the areas of human rights and HIV/AIDS) or focuses on intellectual property — all possibilities, so far — Jorgensen hopes that a career in law will provide him with stable employment.

Given the pressures people face to get into and succeed at law school, and then find articling positions — along with the time and expense involved — “you have to expect they’re going to focus on making a living,” says British-born Axworthy, a former NDP Member of Parliament from Saskatchewan, who obtained his LL.M. from McGill.

“Many graduates gravitate toward large firms in big urban centres. But I think law schools could perhaps do a bit more to provide them with a range of options that they can pursue.

“It’s not all about Bay Street and the big corporate commercial law firms. There are opportunities in smaller and remote communities where often there are no lawyers or the ones that are there are aging.”

In addition to law schools instilling a strong academic knowledge base in students, he believes these institutions also need to collaborate with the profession to better understand the needs of the Bar.

“Law is a business as well as a calling — and to expect law firms to hire graduates we need to ensure they can add value to a firm.”

Adds Osgoode Hall’s Sossin: “The worlds ofacademic life and professional or practice life have become too much of two solitudes. We need far more opportunities for each to view the concerns and priorities from the perspective of the other to facilitate a renewed and rejuvenated relationship between law societies and law schools.”


Like mother, like daughter

Growing up in Toronto, Crystal Chung thought she’d become a surgeon one day.

She was on the path toward medicine while pursuing — and obtaining — an honours undergraduate degree in health sciences from McMaster University in Hamilton in 2009.

Shortly afterward, Chung landed a job as a legal assistant at the Toronto litigation firm, Marvin A. Gorodensky Professional Corp., which is when she reexamined her career choice in medicine once she started seriously thinking about the pressures she would face in constantly dealing with the sick and dying, and of “literally saving lives” — a concern made even more acute in light of a battle her mother waged against non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and ultimately lost in 2006 at the age of 56.

Her mom, Zenny Chung, was also a lawyer, who ran her own mainly corporate-commercial practice in Toronto.

“Unfortunately, she didn’t even know I was interested in going into law,” says her daughter, now a first-year student at Osgoode Hall Law School.

But Crystal Chung would have made her mother proud.

She sent applications to every Ontario law school except for one, as well as to the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Halifax. All accepted her. Chung chose to attend Osgoode Hall at York University in her hometown.

“Osgoode has a prestigious reputation, is very interdisciplinary and has a very good curriculum. In addition to teaching fundamental law, it also provides a great clinical education within a legal setting.

“And, they were generous in offering me some financial support.”

Chung received The Honourable William G.C. Howland Award of Excellence Entrance Scholarship worth $10,000 given to students with an A- average or better. It will cover more than half of the $17,631 in basic tuition during her first year — and, if she maintains an academic standing in the top 20 per cent of the class, Chung will continue to receive the scholarship and the $10,000 annually for her remaining two years of law school.

Certainly, the pressure is on to get good grades beyond just the money.

By next year, she will begin applying for articling positions following her graduation a year later, and law firms will look at how she performed in school this year. Furthermore, 23-year-old Chung will be competing for an articling spot with many colleagues from her class of about 290 students, some of whom have Ph.D.s and others who are in their 40s.

At this point, Chung is considering different areas of law — from medical malpractice to family law, and perhaps intellectual property — when she eventually embarks on her career.

“Over time, I’m hoping to weed out fields that I don’t like and then find some different areas I’m interested in and never considered.”
She’s not sure how her mother would have reacted to her current academic pursuit — although it’s clear the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

“Like me, she was very inquisitive, liked to resolve conflicts, and enjoyed debating and thinking about issues,” says Chung.

“Obviously, it would be a huge help if she were to guide me and to hold my hand along the way — but I like to think I make my own decisions.

“But the way I saw her as a lawyer is inspiring to me.”


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