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New kid on the block

|Written By Heather Gardiner
New kid on the block
Photo: Diamond and Schmitt Architects

It may have taken more than 30 years, but Canada finally has a new law school. On Sept. 6, the faculty at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., opens its doors. Along with law schools at the universities of British Columbia and Victoria, TRU’s will be the third in the province.

Anne Pappas, the new law school’s founding administrator, says Kamloops is an excellent location, noting British Columbia needed another law school. “B.C. per capita — population wise — having only two law schools is under-servicing the province. The community exposure is going to be very different from UVic or UBC and I think it’s going to lend a really good balance,” she adds.

In the town of about 80,000, according to Statistics Canada’s latest count in 2006, dean Chris Axworthy hopes to increase the number of graduates who stay to work in Kamloops and other small communities in B.C. “We really need to give students the idea that there’s another option than a big law firm to consider,” he says. TRU will need to ensure students learn the skills they need to practise in a smaller community, he explains. As part of his long-term plan, he hopes to encourage lawyers in smaller regions to mentor students so they can see what life is like in those areas.

As a lawyer, Pappas understands that recent graduates may not want to start their own practice in a small town, but she believes once they have families they might seek more of a life balance and move back. And she’s confident TRU’s Faculty of Law will prepare them for this transition.

Most of the students who have been accepted into the program’s first year are from British Columbia, mainly from the Lower Mainland, says Axworthy. Initially, TRU was not in a position to advertise the law school as it had to get approvals from the provincial government and the legal profession, he adds, so there really weren’t any recruitment efforts. However, in the years to come Axworthy plans to visit colleges and universities outside of the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island to attract students from a wider range of communities.

To help them bring in those students, Axworthy says the law school needs to develop a curriculum that will assist students in going back to their communities to practise. “We have to ensure our students make that transition from law school to private practice as smoothly and as effectively as possible.” In reaching out to those communities, Axworthy also hopes to connect with First Nations. He says TRU is already in talks with aboriginal groups, which he hopes will help spread the word to students and assist the school in ensuring the curriculum is responsive to their needs.

At least one faculty member comes with extensive aboriginal law experience. Janna Promislow has worked for Ontario’s Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and represented aboriginal clients in the Northwest Territories. She most recently taught at UVic’s law school and will be teaching constitutional law in the first year at TRU. She says having a law school at TRU will be a great opportunity to make legal services more accessible for the aboriginal communities in the surrounding area.

But Axworthy recognizes the difficult task associated with encouraging aboriginal students to apply to law school. “One challenge for aboriginal students is that aboriginal cultures are non-confrontational and tend to be focused on dealing with disputes in such a way that it heals the community, the perpetrator, and the victim. That’s not the way the law works. The law works on an adversarial model; lots of confrontation, lots of conflict, lots of blame. And so from a cultural point of view there are some issues there,” he says. “So you have this legal culture, which is in many ways quite foreign for aboriginal students, and we have to find ways to bridge those gaps and to incorporate ways and principles of aboriginal justice into our curriculum.”

He acknowledges the efforts of other law schools in trying to accomplish this, but he wants it to be a real focus at TRU.

Tuition may also be an issue. As it stands, it will cost a student $16,800 per year to study law at TRU, which is almost double the $8,507.92 tuition at UVic and substantially more than the $10,338.17 at UBC for 2011-12. But students in the first intake will each get a $3,700 grant for each of their three years — bringing their fees down to $13,100 per year. Part of the difference in fees between the new law school and the others in B.C. is that they are both under a tuition freeze and receive provincial funds, which Pappas told a local newspaper that TRU will not.

In its first year, TRU’s curriculum will be similar to that of the University of Calgary since the schools are partnering. Axworthy says TRU will have similarities to Calgary’s focus on natural resources. However, being a new faculty, TRU will be able to get creative once it moves along to the upper years.

The first-year curriculum will be fairly standard: contract law, tort law, property law, constitutional law, and criminal law, as well as alternative dispute resolution courses. He says the faculty has thought about focusing on aboriginal law, energy law, natural resources law, and environmental law for the long term, but it will depend on what specialties professors bring and which areas of law students are interested in.

TRU is also connected with the Staffordshire University Centre for International Sports Law in England. With TRU’s large tourism department, Axworthy is confident the law school can eventually specialize in sports law, an area not well covered in other Canadian law schools and one in which students are showing more interest.

To kick things off, TRU will have 10 faculty members and 75 students entering its first-year class. As of the beginning of July, the school had six full-time and two part-time faculty members on board. Promislow says she’s excited about the small group of students and faculty members because it will allow them to develop closer relationships than at larger law schools.

Pappas says she’s eager to see how much of an influence the students will have in the development of the law school. “That’s the exciting part because once the students come in, they’re going to have such a phenomenal impact in terms of how we think about things we’ve normally delivered in a very traditional way,” she says.

TRU is going to make a deliberate effort to stay ahead of the curve in the evolution of legal practice, as it is still new, small, and flexible. New and young means embracing technology. For example, the school’s library will be predominantly digital. In addition, Pappas says the faculty members they’ve brought on are “visionaries,” who she predicts will be creative and help educate graduates who are able to redefine and recreate the legal profession. Axworthy is counting on some of these factors to produce exceptional graduates who are able to excel in the legal world. “We do want to make a deliberate effort to respond to the concern the profession has, which is that law graduates are not always ready to work in a law firm,” he says. Graduates need to be useful to their firm and add value early on, which Axworthy believes is the responsibility of law schools to help provide that foundation. Preparing students for private practice starts with a solid legal education, he says. “Initially we need to do what we can to establish ourselves as a top-notch law school.”

Another hurdle for law schools can be preventing top students from travelling abroad for their legal education. Axworthy says TRU will help stem the tide crossing the border by having more spots available for Canadian students to attend law school here and by offering access to courses and exams that overseas students will need to complete in order to qualify to practise in Canada. “I think with TRU coming on board and then with Lakehead [University] coming on board, I think we definitely will see more of those international students staying at home, which is what we need,” says Pappas. “We need students from small communities, we need students from all over the country to be here experiencing different lifestyles, different communities, different ways of practising, and making contributions to the local communities that they’re in.”

It wasn’t always clear that British Columbia would be the first province to host a new law school in three decades. Before the provincial government announced its plans in 2009, many were pushing for Ontario to take the honour with Lakehead University and Wilfrid Laurier University competing for a potential school. Ontario may not be first but, as the Ontario government announced in July, Lakehead in Thunder Bay will open the first law school in northern Ontario in September 2013.

So before you start flipping through travel brochures, you might want to consider your options here at home as more doors open for Canadian law students.

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