Ryerson Law School: Contributing to a lawyer glut, or opening the door to accessible justice?

28 June 2018

By Eden Kaill

Ontario may soon have a new option for those wanting to become lawyers without ending up in unmanageable amounts of debt.

Background: Ryerson University’s proposed law school was preliminarily approved by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada at the end of 2017, and a majority of the Law Society of Ontario (“LSO”) benchers approved the proposal in February 2018. The LSO’s formal approval means that individuals holding a Ryerson law degree will be permitted to apply for LSO membership.

The final steps to becoming a fully-accredited law school are to complete internal approvals within the university, and ultimately to be approved by the Ontario provincial government.

Arguments in favour: Ryerson’s dean of record for the proposed program, Anver Saloojee, told Ryerson Today that the aim of the school is to provide practical training as lawyers, with a focus on issues like equity, diversity and inclusion, access to justice, indigenous law, and technology. Saloojee says the school wants to graduate lawyers who are immediately ready for practice.

Proponents of the school say it is needed because other law schools have become unaffordable, which ultimately impacts access to justice when young lawyers aren’t in a financial position to take on anything but high-paying work. In the Lawyers Daily, LSO bencher Julian Falconer notes that “We don’t encourage law graduates any more to take up less paying, but more socially important work. We’re actually doing the opposite. We’re creating incentives where they can’t do that work.”

Access to justice both in Ontario and across Canada is a crucial issue. Unsurprisingly, the Canadian Bar Association reports that the vast majority of unrepresented litigants (who are up to 80% of litigants depending on the type of case) would prefer to have a lawyer. The LSO reports that for individuals in Ontario who choose not to pursue legal action, a significant proportion have made the choice because they can’t afford to hire a lawyer.

With tuition currently planned to be within the range of $20,000 a year, the Ryerson program will fall on the lower end of Ontario law school fees. Because it is located in downtown Toronto, it could be seen as an affordable alternative to the University of Toronto’s yearly tuition of approximately $35,000, and will also fall below Osgoode Hall’s yearly tuition of approximately $27,000. The theory is that new lawyers who want to use their legal skills to help those who can’t afford Bay Street legal fees will be more likely to do so if they don’t have six figures in law school debt hanging over their heads.

Arguments against: That theory is all well and good, say some lawyers who spoke to Canadian Lawyer Magazine, but it only works if Ryerson graduates can find any jobs at all, given the lack of articling positions available to the graduates of existing law schools. The LSO reported in May 2018 that only ten percent of Ontario law firms offer articling positions at all, characterizing the situation not as a temporary blip, but rather “…a permanent shortage of articling positions.”

Ryerson itself, in conjunction with the University of Ottawa, is trying to alleviate that problem through the Law Practice Program (“LPP”), which could be seen as contradictory to opening a law school that would add more lawyers to an already swollen market.

There is also a concern that, as has plagued the LPP program to some degree, there will be a stigma placed on Ryerson law graduates as being second-tier to the established Ontario law schools. Michelle Cook wrote for thecourt.ca:

“… (the) Ryerson letter looks at this project as a “success” that shows that the university should expand their foothold in the legal market. What Ryerson fails to mention in its letter is that this program remains highly stigmatized by law school graduates and those in the legal profession”

The worry is that in addition to being new lawyers in an already intensely competitive job market, Ryerson law graduates would face the additional challenge of potential employers wondering why they couldn’t get into a different school.

The Takeaway: The argument against having a new Ontario law school is essentially that the province doesn’t need any more lawyers, and certainly doesn’t need more new lawyers than there are entry-level law jobs. Whether that argument is valid depends on what those lawyers ultimately end up focusing their practices on. If the Ryerson program produces socially conscious, practically-trained graduates who are willing to bend expectations of what a new lawyer does, and who aren’t interested in competing for lucrative Bay Street jobs, Ontario will end up with more people with legal training to help those who need it the most. That hardly seems like a problem.

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