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Changes are coming to law education in Ontario

Ontario law schools begin to formulate ways to adapt their programs to meet new licensing option for graduating students.

BY DIANE PETERS | JAN 09 2013

There’s a new way to get licensed as a lawyer in Ontario. It’s a change that is impacting law schools in the province and beyond.

This past November, after more than a year of research and public consultations, the Law Society of Upper Canada, which governs the profession in Ontario, approved a second option for law school graduates to become lawyers. This was to resolve the growing shortage of articling positions for graduating law students; about 15 percent of students applying for positions in the province last year couldn’t find one, up three percentage points from 2011.

Starting in 2014, students will either complete a 10-month articling position in keeping with longstanding tradition or they will take a hands-on program called a law practice program (LPP) and a four-month co-op placement.

The new approach, which will run as a five-year pilot program, garnered a range of responses from members of the legal education community before its approval. University of Windsor students wrote a letter saying that it would be too expensive for law graduates, already burdened with debt, to take on another study program and that it would lead to a two-tiered profession. Queen’s University’s faculty of law reported a lack of consensus on campus after a public consultation was held there. Meanwhile, Lorne Sossin, dean of Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, described the old path to licensing as “untenable” and said it was creating an “artificial barrier to licensing.”

Now that the new rules are in place – and no matter what their opinion was beforehand – Ontario law schools are pondering their role in running the new licensing option. That, in turn, is influencing talk of larger changes to how law is taught in the province.In a report that was adopted by its members, the Law Society estimated the new program would cost about $5,600 per student. Some of the cost will be offset by a small increase to Law Society member fees that was also approved in November.

Law schools don’t yet know when the new courses will run, what the content will be, the student-to-teacher ratio or the role schools might play. The Law Society is still developing its request for proposals, to be released early this year.

“If they wanted a course on, say, the financial metrics of running a law firm, we have expertise at the university for that,” said Iain Scott, dean of the law faculty at Western University. But he said that if the Law Society proposes something more basic, such as explaining trust accounts, “it may be less attractive for an academic institution to be involved in that.”

At York, Dr. Sossin is already looking ahead to how the school’s professional education arm, Osgoode Professional Development, could offer innovative LPPs. “If we embark on offering these courses, it would not be with a two-track, two-tiered, stigma-filled vibe. We would reinvent what this looks like,” he said.

Dr. Sossin hopes that existing Osgoode programs, such as its poverty and law program where students volunteer at the Parkdale Community Legal Services clinic, could count as a co-op placement. Osgoode has already modified its curriculum to include more experiential components, such as a mentorship program with working lawyers.

Lakehead University, which is launching a new law school and enrolling its first 55 students next fall, expects its future graduates to take advantage of the new licensing option. Its dean, Lee Stuesser, said there are no more than 15 articling positions in all of Northern Ontario. “Unlike other law schools, we don’t have to retool for the new reality. We will be tooling for the new reality.”

Bringing more hands-on components into law schools has triggered a debate over whether law degrees should become more practical or stick to their theoretical roots. “Some say we’re not in the business of teaching the practice of law in legal education, but I personally do not agree with that. We are a professional school,” said Mr. Stuesser.

Western’s dean, Mr. Scott, said his faculty is looking at modifying its curriculum “quite apart from these new licensing requirements but following on them” to include more experiential components, such as a mentorship program with working lawyers. He said the best place to learn how to write a brief and act in court is in practice, but that law schools should teach students more about modern complexities such as international finance.

While Ontario’s seven law schools are keeping in close contact with the Law Society about next steps, schools outside the province are curious too because some of their graduates move to Ontario to complete their licensing. Some graduates may be from Ontario originally, while others may want to work in Toronto, which has by far the largest concentration of major law firms in Canada. For instance, every year, 10 to 15 of the University of British Columbia’s new law grads get licensed in Ontario, said Jennifer Lau, acting director of career services for the faculty, who is keeping tabs on the Ontario developments.

However, British Columbia and other provinces don’t have an articling shortage themselves, and none are planning to adopt Ontario’s new rules. According to surveys conducted at UBC, between 96 and 99 percent of its law graduates have found an articling position six months after graduation. The law community in British Columbia is quite small, said Ms. Lau, so the law schools and the Law Society of British Columbia are able to work closely with the firms to get sufficient placements for graduating students.

In Ontario, the push is on to get the new licensing program running by the fall of 2014, when today’s second-year students will be finishing their training. It’s a short timeline to figure out all the details, say the law deans. For the schools, there’s little wiggle room to decide whether to sit back, get involved or tweak the curriculum. But, according to Mr. Scott at Western, inevitably if one Ontario law school starts offering the new licensing program, “all will have to follow suit. We get the same applications for the same students, and it won’t make sense for any of us to offer anything really different.”

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