Given the state of the legal profession — which is witnessing drops in fees, reductions in associate pay, and a growing shortage of articling positions — you might wonder why Ontario needs its first new law school in four decades, and why it should be at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. The answer may lie in the fact that on the head of Lake Superior, halfway between Winnipeg and Sault Ste. Marie, where the temperature drops below zero 200 days a year, the situation for law school graduates is not nearly as bleak as it is elsewhere. In fact, it seems they can’t get enough lawyers there.
Trudy McCormick, executive director of the Northwest Community Legal Clinic, says it’s a constant struggle to bring lawyers to the far-off parts of the Canadian Shield, which presents a problem, particularly given what’s come to be called the “greying of the profession.” She says: “We have not had many lawyers start to practise here in many years, so there isn’t a pool of talent that is there to replace folks as they retire,” she says. Alexander Zaitzeff, a veteran trial lawyer with Watkins Law Professional Corp. in Thunder Bay, agrees. “It’s been difficult for years, indeed decades, to get graduates to come to Northern Ontario, for reasons that I don’t think are valid,” he says.
While young lawyers may flock to the “cement canyons” of Toronto in search of a prominent career, Zaitzeff says in Thunder Bay the legal work is interesting and, perhaps even more importantly, there’s plenty of it. “A lawyer up here could work 20 or 24 hours a day if he was so inclined,” he says. “And there’s full employment.”
So how do you draw lawyers to underserviced communities? Dean Lee Stuesser’s answer is by starting a law school “in the North, for the North.” By focusing the curriculum on “northern” issues like aboriginal law and natural resources law, Stuesser wagers he can help fill a gap in the legal market. “Most Canadian law schools offer courses in these areas . . . but I think the difference is the integration,” says Jason MacLean, a former associate at Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, who will leave behind his commercial litigation practice to become one of Lakehead’s five full-time law professors, including the dean.
Rather than sticking aboriginal law at the bottom of the syllabus with the caveat “if time allows,” Lakehead is proposing to weave it into the core curriculum, including two half-year courses in first year, and an upper-year course in Canadian Law as Applied to Aboriginal Peoples.
Not everyone was satisfied with the law school’s initial program for aboriginal studies. The non-credit, half-year Aboriginal Perspectives class was added in response to a protest staged by some Lakehead students after the administration reduced the original aboriginal law class from a full- to a half-year course. Even with the compromise, Lakehead promises to be a leader in education on aboriginal law.
Lakehead’s program will also emphasize practical legal skills. “The problem with so many Canadian law schools in the last few decades is that there’s a pendulum in education, and the pendulum has swung towards the academic side,” says Stuesser. “We’re fusing academics with practice, integrating the two.”
First-year students will learn to draft documents like contracts and wills — a departure from the traditional model of simply analyzing appellate court decisions. In first-year criminal law students will conduct a bail hearing. “Academics in isolation need to be applied to bring them to life,” says Stuesser. “We’re going to be integrating skills within all our core courses.”
As part of this focus on skills, the law faculty will be made up of professors with practical experience. “What I’m looking for are practitioner-scholars,” Stuesser says. “To be blunt, I think a lot of the problem with law schools these days is there’s too many doctors and not enough lawyers.”
Students seem to be getting behind the new approach. Adam Schenk, a lifelong resident of Thunder Bay with an undergraduate degree from Lakehead, will be one of 55 students in the inaugural class when the school opens Sept. 3. Schenk says he was drawn to the new law school because the curriculum promises to make students “not only legally knowledgeable, but also well prepared to enter the field and actually practise law.”
If Stuesser gets his way, Lakehead graduates will not only be ready to practise law, but licensed too. He submitted a proposal to the Law Society of Upper Canada for a Law Practice Program that — if approved — will allow students to practise without having to article.
The program would take place over the course of the three-year degree, and at no extra cost — a major boon, since the added cost was a major criticism of the LSUC’s proposed alternative path to articling. Because the program would run concurrent with law school, effectively students would have to commit to finding articles well in advance. Still, Stuesser predicts the majority of students will opt into the LPP program, which would have a co-op component.
While having a law school in the neighbourhood has many in the Northern Ontario legal community excited, not everyone is convinced that once the school opens its doors it will solve the significant access to justice problems in rural Canada. The principal issue is not the number of lawyers, but cost, according to Fred Bellefeuille, senior legal counsel and director of the legal department at the Union of Ontario Indians in North Bay, Ont.
Between the endemic poverty in so many First Nations communities, the complexity of local laws, and the increased expense associated with delivering legal services to remote areas, cost becomes a significant barrier for many, he says. With so many complications, it’s hard to see how simply adding a few more lawyers to local communities will substantially improve access to legal services. “I think it will help,” says Bellefeuille. “But it’s not the total solution.”
Even if an increase in lawyers would improve access to legal services in rural communities, a tailored curriculum and thorough application process is still no guarantee graduates will choose to build their careers in those locations. The Northern Ontario School of Medicine, which was created to address similar problems of underserviced rural communities, has succeeded in retaining its graduates to practise in those areas. Sixty-five per cent of NOSM family medicine graduates stay to work in Northern Ontario. Still, it’s difficult to predict whether the law faculty will see similar results.
Dave Pierce, who grew up west of Thunder Bay in Fort Frances, Ont., won’t be heading for the cement canyons of the big city any time soon. He has an MA from Lakehead, and works at the Nishnawbe Aski First Nation’s political advocacy group. Better class sizes and job prospects are a plus, but for him the best part of having a local law school is that he won’t have to relocate. “To be honest I was kind of dreading having to go back to southern Ontario to attend law school,” he says. “So it kind of was very fortuitous.”
The cost of attending Lakehead’s law school is also less than others in Ontario. Its annual tuition is $15,140 compared to just under $21,500 for a JD year at Osgoode Hall Law School or $16,709 at Western and almost $29,000 for those entering first year law at the University of Toronto.
Lakehead law students aren’t all like Pierce. Alison Morris, from Revelstoke, B.C., has no connection to Northern Ontario, and knew next to nothing about Lakehead before applying to be a part of the new law faculty. Although she grew up in small towns, Morris says she isn’t ready to commit to practising in rural Canada. “I definitely wouldn’t rule it out,” she says, adding getting some early experience at a big city firm might be a good place to start, and she can always move to a smaller community later on.
When asked about retention, Stuesser doesn’t seem too concerned. “I don’t think any law school can protect that,” he says. “You provide a path and hope that students follow that path.”