It’s time to put the brakes on the idea of Ryerson Law and look at the negative effects of opening another law school in Toronto
The Law Society of Ontario (LSO) recently approved Ryerson’s proposed new law school. I am sure that most of us have a similar response to this – enough is enough!
You may think that I’m being self-interested in opposing Ryerson’s dreams of having a legal institution. But the reality is, Ryerson opening up a law school will not affect those of us graduating before 2023. The legal profession highly values seniority and experience – those of us graduating before Ryerson even comes into existence do not have much to worry about. However, there are some obvious negatives to Ryerson opening up a law school which must be pointed out for the sake of future graduates: the negative impact on articling, the failure to promote access to justice, and its effect on the mental health of future law students.
Articling: Going Further Down the Rabbit Hole
In January, Obiter Dicta ran an anonymous piece about the articling crisis. That article brought up the sad reality for many students in law school: there are limited articling opportunities – unless you are willing to work for 10 months as an unpaid or underpaid worker. It is a reality that small Toronto-based firms can sometimes only offer to pay articling students $1000/month. Some of them cannot afford to pay at all. Despite the low pay, students are understandably still expected to put in the long hours required in a legal environment. When academically gifted students are paying anywhere from $26,000 to $38,000 per year, at two of the top law schools in the country, are struggling to find a position which even pays them minimum wage, it is not smart or desirable to flood the market with more graduates needing articling positions.
Ryerson and the LSO recently created the Law Practice Program (LPP) as an alternative to the articling process. The key word here is “alternative.” Why was it created? To solve the articling crisis where students cannot find positions. A 2011 study cited by Ryerson as support for the LPP indicates that 91% of Ontario’s firms do not offer articling positions, and 10% of law graduates cannot find articling positions. This statistic fails to mention how many students need to accept unpaid or underpaid positions in order to dream of being licensed. Year after year, there are more law students being accepted into institutions, and more foreign graduates seeking positions in the Canadian market. In fact, enrolment in the LPP is growing year after year because there are too many graduates and too few articling jobs. To date, Ryerson has had over 800 LPP students. By Ryerson’s own admission, many students in the LPP still cannot manage to obtain paid positions. To put it bluntly, students who choose to article or complete the LPP may end up going 8-10 months without pay while working 8-12-hour days.
It seems unreasonable to now open another legal institution that will: (1) churn out approximately 150 extra graduates per year; (2) require students to pay a minimum of $20,000/year in tuition plus living expenses, which motivates them to seek out limited Big Law articling and associate jobs to pay back their debt; (3) exacerbate the articling problem and increase the enrolment of the LPP; and (4) require a higher number of students to take on unpaid or low paid work. As was said by Life bencher Bradley Wright, the number of students entering law schools is increasing far beyond that of the population. This is troubling.
What Happened to Access to Justice?
Although I disagree, there may very well be a need for a new law school in Ontario. But not in the most saturated legal market in Canada. Rather than opening up another school in Toronto, we need to push to open schools in underserved communities. For example, there are zero law schools in Ontario between Osgoode and Western – Hamilton and the Kitchener-Waterloo areas would be prime locations for a legal institution. These locations would be able to provide quality legal education at a lower cost and would attract students who would eventually serve those communities – this is what access to justice truly warrants.
Ryerson’s goal is to produce “practice-ready graduates.” I think this is fantastic. But it is the underserved communities who need “practice-ready” graduates the most, not the most populated legal market in Canada. Firms in Toronto can train students into the type of lawyer they want them to be. For practical reasons, many smaller firms in places like Hamilton, Cambridge, and North Bay do not have as much time or resources to spend doing so. Students who are educated in Toronto, and who have to pay Toronto-based living expenses, often cannot afford to move to these smaller communities early on in their careers. The result: these communities remain underserved.
The Elephant in the Room: Mental Health
Aside from an oversaturated market and the failure to properly promote access to justice, what else is bad about this proposal? Well, its effect on the mental health of future students at all law schools.
Law students suffer through crippling depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies over their career prospects, financial debt and the inherent competitiveness of the profession. The LPP is a tough sell for any student despite its notable improvement over the years because of its status as an “alternative.” I pause here to state that I do not doubt the quality of the LPP or the students in the program. But due to its status as an alternative, I have seen plenty of students dread the thought of having to go into the LPP. Some even have gone as far as to say they will look for a non-legal job and attempt to obtain an articling position during the following recruit, rather than enrolling in the LPP. It would be naïve to say that these decisions do not cause mental distress for law students. As long as articling is still the go-to training tool by the “best” employers in the province, students will continue to feel this way about the thought of going into the LPP.
It is not only Ryerson students who will feel this mental sting; there will be a trickle-down effect which hurts the mental health of all law students in Ontario. Students need to pay off their debt, they need to have fulfilling jobs, and they need to survive. It is logical to assume that more graduates equals fewer jobs. Fewer jobs plus more debt equals worse mental health.
The medical field has similar problems right now where there are not enough residency spots for medical school graduates in Canada. Students go unplaced after spending over $100,000 in tuition costs. Recently, one of these students has even taken their own life due to the mental anguish associated with not having a residency position. Like the medical profession, it is fairly obvious the legal profession cannot sustain more graduates right now and that we suffer similar results.
Proponents of Ryerson seem to base a lot of their argument around the ‘demand’ for more law school spots. They point to students going abroad to study law as a reason why we should expand the number of spots here. With respect, this rationale misses the mark. No one disputes the demand for spots, nor the quality of education that Ryerson students will receive. I am sure Ryerson graduates will go on to make amazing lawyers who will change the nature of the profession. However, there is no right to obtain a legal education. Just because you are a smart student, with a great LSAT score and a solid application, does not mean you have the right to attend a prestigious legal institution. If you don’t get in, try and try again. If you consistently don’t get in anywhere, then perhaps there is a flaw in your personal application which needs to be fixed. As Bradley Wright stated, it’s a social problem to have too few lawyers, but it is an equally large problem to have too many lawyers. I add to that with two questions: (1) what good is a law graduate who cannot even become licensed? And (2) how do we improve access to justice when lawyers cannot afford to take on socially desirable causes or move to underserved areas?
Before even dreaming about opening up another law school, we need to solve the articling crisis.
 While some take issue with the remuneration offered by some firms, I think that, while unfortunate, these firms are still doing students a service. However, the ethics of this practice is far beyond the scope of this article.