An American law school is looking to change the game when it launches a North American law degree for Canadian and American students next fall.
The degree, offered by Arizona State University, will be the first program to allow students to practise law internationally, providing graduates with a U.S. Juris Doctorate degree and the core courses required for students seeking Canadian certification.
“We think cross border practice is going to be a very big deal in the decades to come between Canada and the United States,” says Douglas Sylvester, dean of the College of Law at Arizona State University.
Sylvester believes there will be a constant need for people to be able to practise law “in both jurisdictions,” something he says the ASU degree will prepare students for upon graduation.
The three-year program requires the same academic requirements as all other JDs offered at ASU, but unlike other programs, the North American degree dedicates about one-third of its courses towards Canadian law education.
“We’re the only law school in the United States offering this kind of program,” says Sylvester, who believes the program offers even more benefits to its graduates since receiving approval for their third-year students to complete the Arizona bar exam before graduation.
Eugene Meehan, a partner of the Supreme Advocacy LLP in Ottawa, believes this concept is “highly creative,” by enabling students to immediately seek Canadian certification right after graduation.
Licensed to practise in Arizona as well as a number of Canadian jurisdictions, Meehan claims this makes him “bilingual,” since he can “translate” and “explain” U.S. law to a Canadian client.
“The North American Law Degree program is such a forward thinking, and forward planning, initiative,” says Meehan. “It’s remarkable that no one has thought of this before.”
For Meehan, the degree will improve Ontario’s articling crisis by enabling students to opt for articling positions in the U.S. that practise Ontario principles.
However, Bruce Feldthusen, dean of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, believes foreign-based law degrees are one of the main contributors to Ontario’s articling oversupply.
“The offshore supply has already destabilized articling,” says Feldthusen, who claims Canada would have had enough articling positions if it were not for foreign-based law degrees.
“These offshore people are primarily Ontario residents, many of whom could not get admitted into a Canadian law school,” says Feldthusen, noting even though they get their education elsewhere, the students will eventually “come back” to pursue a law career in Canada.
Although supportive of students opting for foreign-based law degrees, Feldthusen believes the profession needs to “figure out a way” of coping with “this reality in a way that they really haven’t yet.”
“I have no objection to these foreign people coming to the market, it’s just that we have to figure out a new way of dealing with it,” says Feldthusen.
The program’s brochure claims the problem with Canada’s law industry is Canadian law schools do not graduate enough lawyers to serve Canadian society, with about one lawyer for every 450 citizens, which according the ASU, is the lowest of any common-law industry in the world.
“Around the world there is this perception that Canadian law schools cannot meet the demands for Canadian legal education,” says Feldthusen. “I don’t think that particular ratio reflects the increase in the number of foreign graduates entering the market.”
But for international students, the process of becoming licensed in Canada involves more than a law degree. According to Deborah Wolfe, managing director of the National Committee on Accreditation for the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, U.S. students must graduate from an American Bar Association-approved law school — otherwise, they may be told to “go back to law school” before being able to be called to the bar here.
Wolfe confirms she has had several conversations with Sylvester in preparation for the first semester of the North American degree.
“They were very interested to hear about the policies in Canada and are really looking forward to the work that they’re doing on their program,” says Wolfe.
However, despite graduating with a degree that focuses on North American law, students will still be required to complete Canadian exams to become certified.
“It’s going to be up to the students to decide, ‘Do I want to prepare for those Canadian exams on my own, or do I want to take the courses that are offered at ASU to help me prepare for those exams?’’’ says Wolfe.
But with the program’s planned courses, Meehan predicts ASU graduates “will be much sought after,” and credits Sylvester’s Canadian and U.S. citizenship for creating such a “remarkable” program.