Ryerson Applies for a Law School—Does Canada Really Need More Law Graduates?

This is the first part of a two-part series on Ryerson University’s application to found a new law school in Canada. Part I provides an argument for why Ryerson should not be granted approval for a law school based on the current market. Part II highlights some of the ways in which Ryerson’s application contributes innovative ideas that could potentially revolutionize the way in which legal education is taught. It also highlights how Ryerson’s application exposes some of the gaps in current models of legal education.

Last week, Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario officially submitted their letter of intent to pursue a law school. This submission is the first step in the process to obtain a new Juris Doctor (JD) program in Ontario. While I have some comments on the proposal itself, this opinion piece will focus primarily on why I think it would be unwise to add another law school based on the current legal market. In addition, I argue that the introduction of a new law school runs counter to the purpose of the Law Practice Program, which serves as an alternative for students who are unable to secure articling positions.

i) Why Canada (especially Ontario) Does Not Need Another Law School

I, like many other students, understand that the current legal market is saturated with students. While Toronto is Canada’s largest legal market, jobs in Toronto for law students are scarce and there is heavy competition. One only needs to ask recruiters or second-year students going through On-Campus Interviews to learn that the number of law students is rapidly increasing while the number of summer student and articling positions are stagnating. The issue doesn’t get better as one leaves the city. I spent my first summer at a law firm an hour north of Toronto which, despite having only nine lawyers, receives hundreds of applications for a single position. It took me over two months and almost a hundred résumés to secure a 1L summer position.

While the articling position shortage is significant, Ryerson devotes less than one page of their entire letter of intent to its analysis, then insufficiently dismisses the crisis by arguing that their program would provide a different form of innovative legal education. Interestingly, Ryerson cites one of their recent studies, which found that in 2011, 91% of the province’s law firms did not provide articling positions and 10% of law school graduates could not find articling positions. Nowhere in the letter does Ryerson address the point that the creation of a new law school might further saturate the already overloaded market.

Instead of engaging in a substantive discussion about the articling student crisis, Ryerson uses charts and statistics to show that there is great student demand to go to law school. I do not disagree that Ryerson will be able to attract students. I also acknowledge that there is a large amount of students that go overseas for legal education because they cannot get into Canadian law schools. Just because students have the option of studying elsewhere does not change the fact that law degrees should be a highly limited commodity. Many students choose to go overseas because such schools do not require LSAT scores; as such, Ryerson would not be fully tapping into the core market of students going abroad. The concern about too many international students entering Ontario’s legal market should be addressed by the Bar examinations or the Law Society, and should not be used as a justification for a new law school.

Ryerson also relies on the lack of studies on legal labour market demand (excluding their own previously quoted study from this portion of their analysis). Despite several studies and commentaries published on the current saturation in the legal market, Ryerson chose to highlight a study from the Council of Ontario Universities, which found that law graduates from 2010 had an employment rate two years after graduation of 93.9%. The letter failed to mention if this employment rate was within the students’ field of study.

It is also noteworthy that, since 2010, Lakehead University in Ontario and Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia have opened up new law schools. These schools have both been struggling to establish a name for themselves amongst students and recruiters. Students have certainly applied there, but very rarely do these schools rank as a student’s top choice.

Furthermore, there is a general perception among law students that even once they are hired as an Associate in a law firm, the chance of one day becoming an equity partner is not what it once was. Uncertainty in the legal market and the ever-increasing costs of tuition are just two of several reasons why the amount of law students should be curbed. Ryerson’s assertion that the retirement of Baby Boomers will create a large gap in the market has yet to be seen.

Moreover, in 2008 the Ontario government announced that it would not contemplate funding new law schools. While one of these schools (Lakehead) was eventually funded, I am doubtful that the current government would be more inclined to fund a new law school with the government’s current budget constraints.

ii) Ryerson’s Law Practice Program

Ryerson is candid that the shortage of articling positions led to the creation of its Law Practice Program (“LPP”) in 2014, which serves as an alternative to the articles of clerkship required for admission to the bar. Even still, 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. Surveys of students in the LPP show that students only took the program because they had to. In addition, one third of the students enrolled in the LPP were unpaid for their 4 months of placement. With ever-increasing debt loads, this program introduces a very significant opportunity cost. While the Law Society has considered removing the LPP due to its intense stigma and opportunity cost, it has recently extended the LPP to try to aid students struggling to find articling positions.

The creation of a new law school directly opposes the LPP’s objective, and would only push more students who are unable to secure articling positions into the program. What Ryerson fails to mention is that the LPP is funded through an additional $1900 licensing fee from the more than 2000 people entering the legal profession each year. Increasing this cost due to the inability of even more students to secure articling placements will only breed resentment towards this program and new law schools in the legal field.

iii) Conclusion

The entire Ryerson proposal reflects what would be in the school administration’s best interest, rather than what is best for both future and current Canadian law students. While the letter of intent is just the first step, the proposal still needs to go through the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, the Law Society of Upper Canada, and the Ontario government.

The overly saturated legal market is not ready for another Ontario-based law school. In fact, the university’s proposal  goes against the very purpose of its LPP, which serves as an alternative to students unable to find articling positions. While Ryerson’s letter of intent brings to light a number of innovative ideas for the future of legal education (to be discussed at length in Part II),  the university cannot simply ignore the realities of the market it is trying to enter. I feel that a new law school would push more students into Ryerson’s LPP as they are unable to secure articling placements. Perhaps it would be a better idea for Ryerson to collaborate with the already-established law schools on how they can better improve their curricula.

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