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Canada isn’t ready for an online law school

Law School Futures
|Written By Philip Bryden
Canada isn’t ready for an online law school

Many Canadian educational institutions have long been running distance education programs. Some of them, such as Alberta’s Athabasca University, specialize in this type of education. The most compelling reason for providing distance education is to make educational opportunities accessible to individuals who are not able to take advantage of the in-person programs offered at universities and colleges.

Distance education not only opens up opportunities for people who are physically remote from institutions of higher learning, it makes education available to people whose personal circumstances make going to classes during normal business hours impractical.

One might have thought these features would make distance education attractive to academics, and there is a significant strand of Canadian academic thinking drawn to distance education’s democratizing possibilities. Nevertheless, Canadian law societies have insisted historically that only in-person programs of university legal education qualified their graduates for entry into bar admission programs.

Moreover, until relatively recently Canadian universities have shown limited interest in using distance learning as a way of providing legal education, although such programs are available in other parts of the world.

In addition to regulatory hurdles, two considerations have influenced Canadian universities in their thinking about offering legal education on a distance-learning basis.

The first is Canadian law schools had an oversupply of students who were excellent candidates for traditional in-person education. Each year, for at least the past three decades, Canadian law schools have turned away hundreds of applicants who, by any reasonable standard, would be well-suited for the type of education we provide.

Nowadays many disappointed applicants seek legal education overseas. As a result, there is something to be said for the argument that universities interested in expanding access to legal education should increase enrolment in their existing law schools or develop new programs of in-person education rather than seek out new students through distance education. Over the past decade a handful of Canadian universities have taken this approach and others may follow it in the future.

Ironically, the second consideration flows from the opportunities distance education offers to providers of education as well as learners. At least as it has traditionally been conceived, distance education creates possibilities for organizations to offer education as a service without making the investments in facilities and research that make universities relatively expensive to operate.

These opportunities have attracted for-profit providers into the distance education marketplace. One can certainly debate whether the education provided by organizations that pursue these opportunities is inherently of suspect quality.

Whatever the outcome of that debate, however, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that for some time Canadian universities have concentrated more on enhancing the quality of their in-person programs of legal education than on expanding access to legal education.

Quality has been defined in terms of the ability of law schools to offer programs of research and teaching that will attract outstanding traditional students who will go on to have successful careers, primarily, though not exclusively, in the legal profession. As a result, Canadian law schools have had little incentive to try to expand their reach by making significant investments in distance education.

More recently, however, technological developments have begun to shift the way Canadian legal educators think about the relationship between in-person and distance education.

Nowadays the use of online course management systems such as TWEN or Moodle is relatively common at Canadian law schools.

Some instructors simply employ these systems as vehicles to provide information to their students, but others make use of their capacity to enhance learning outside the classroom through discussion forums or quizzes students can use to test their understanding of the course material. Other instructors use these systems to provide lecture material online in order to spend more classroom time on problem solving and discussion.

In addition, some institutions have employed videoconferencing to allow instructors located off-campus to offer courses in subjects that would not otherwise be available. Sometimes this form of instruction is offered only to the law school’s own students; in other instances the courses are offered in collaboration with other law schools.

These approaches focus on the capacity of online learning to enhance the students’ educational experience rather than as a way of reaching new students or controlling cost.

To date, therefore, Canadian law schools have been using online education as a way of supplementing traditional in-person learning rather than as a substitute for it. This is consistent with the Federation of Law Societies of Canada’s requirements for Canadian common law degree programs. To be approved by the FLSC, academic programs must consist “primarily of in-person instruction and learning and/or instruction and learning that involves direct interaction between instructor and students.”

Although this measure is designed principally to ensure Canadian law graduates receive a high-quality educational experience, it also reflects a belief that face-to-face interaction is an important aspect of the practice of law and law school should serve as a model for this type of interaction.

The common law degree program implementation committee, of which I was a member, recommended the FLSC be open to re-examining this requirement in light of ongoing developments in legal education and delivery methods. Nevertheless, for the most part, Canadian legal educators still tend to be more concerned about the possibility that purely online programs will undermine the quality of legal education rather than be excited about their potential to reach new audiences of learners.

In the absence of a proponent making a compelling case that the graduates of an online law school program receive an education that is comparable in quality to that provided by Canada’s existing law schools, it is difficult to imagine the FLSC relaxing its in-person education requirement. This is not beyond the realm of possibility, but for now the level of investment required to make that case means that it is not for the faint of heart.

  • Mr.

    Matthew sweetibg
    In Ontario is paralegals are licensed to work for ourselves. We can hear and even preside over traffic infractions.Also in Ontario a professor also told me after five years of practising as a paralegal one can write the LSATS and become a lawyer. In Ontario working for ourselves without the need of the supervision of a lawyer we can handle small claims court cases, Provincal offence cases and cam be justices of the peace.we can also handle summary conviction offence cases. Also we can appear before 600 administrative tribunals so being a paralegal is pretty damn close and has the prospect of becoming a lawyer.
  • Legal Assistant

    James Heymans
    It is quite unfortunate that Canada does not allow people to learn in their own time. As a 39 year old, I am recently became a trained paralegal and I work at a law firm, however I know this is not enough for me. At the same time, I cannot really consider taking three years off of work with no resources to cover me in order to complete a full time degree in law. Are there other options? If one gets trained through a foreign school online, I don't imagine the bar associations would consider that to be sufficient? I have a passion for law and I would like to grow in it.
  • President, Lise Allin insurance and Estate Planning Services

    Lise Allin
    Dear Philip, you make many excellent points. Anyone who has followed the advances in online education globally will understand what an incredible resource it can be. Online programs exist and are recognized in so many professional fields that it really is unfortunate that it lags in Canada. I will look at taking the LLB. online from one of the excellent programs offered in the UK and will use the content to augment my Estate Planing business in Ontario.Not available in Canada? Pity!....Lise Allin, BSc,MPA,CLU,ChFC,CDFA.
  • Management Consultane

    Boris Yeshenski
    Canada is not ready for any progressive change to any form of education. From grade school to university, individual and institutions protectionist attitudes are mane factors why many competent and qualified individuals are underemployed or unemployed.
    The old traditional educational institutions that believes that classroom and a text book is the only path to a good education. Governments ans educational institutions needs to wake up and realize that technology is advancing very fast and it is time to get on board with the rest of the world. I believe that online education at all levels should be available to everyone. In the age of globalization, there is a greater need for people to work, while at the same time they are required to advance their knowledge.
  • Owner of Consultancy

    John Watchman
    I run my own consultancy of 12 high performing staff who I make investments in training of their choice. I had revenues of $3.5 million last year and averaged $2.5 million in 10 years. I did my MBA online after studying the GMAT during that period. I seriously thought of doing a law degree, given that I was in flow of studying 20 hours a week. However, I was surprised and disappointed that Canada's does not offer such education. What inspired me to do that was the number of lawyers who I deal with on a weekly basis who kept asking me if I went to law school, given my grasp of legal principles and language (largely due to the number of deal flows I have been involved in). Anyways, I applaud Philips efforts in trying to make the legal education more accessible. Those honest lawyers out there know, how many dumb lawyers are around trained in the traditional in-person classroom, and I say this because I fired a few of them.
  • The Old Guard

    tony baldwin
    The author of the article states Canada is not ready for an online law school. However, York university has an online program albeit a LLM. Why is it so different. Persons who attend law school pretty much have to learn on their own as the law professors teach the socratic method. Discussions Q & A can be done via internet. The person wanting to learn law will take the opportunity as a serious opportunity to advance themselves.Online schools verses "the old guard"
  • Dr.

    Jackie Smith
    Is there a Canadian online law school?
  • Mr

    Tim M.
    Once a profession becomes regulated, its members do all they can to preserve their incomes. Legal education used to be follow an apprenticeship model but the Law Society got together to formalize the profession in a University setting at the undergraduate level. Once too many lawyers were graduating, the society made the decision to require applicants to attain an undergraduate degree before applying to the professional undergraduate LLB. To make their regulatory capture sound more logical, the LLB was formally changed to a JD in most provinces. The University of London, UK has a distance LLB that is not recognized by "The Bar" in the US or Canada but is recognized in the UK and most other countries. My UT JD was completed after useless classes full of the weirdest cohort of classmates who mostly just excelled at standardized tests and obviously weren't interviewed. These become the voters who decide to exclude as many people as possible to protect their sub standard incomes.
  • Barrister

    Rafail Veli, Esq.
    It's sad actually that Canadian universities can't seem to make the leap in understanding the value of an on-line education.

    It is the wave of the future and the Europeans have already perfected it for law studies amongst other specialities with the end result of qualified Barristers called to the Bar that enrich the profession immensely.

    As a Barrister, sitting in a classroom with well over a 100 plus students is not my sense of time well spent given the alternative of rigorous study and focus of singular learning.
  • Senior Cost Analyst

    Marc Montgomery
    Good read Philip. I am one of those people that would like to become educated in Law and eventually practice Law in Canada. Of course, I am 31 years old with a wife, a son and a mortgage so taking 3 years off work to pursue an education in law is not an option. The world has changed drastically in the last 20 years because of the internet. I think it brings in new possibilities and NCA needs to recognize that. There are a number of individuals in Canada who were not ready to commit to pursuing a higher education in there early to mid 20's and would love that oppurtunity now (30-40 yr olds). I think it would only make for more competition landscape which would increase the level of each person's knowledge and expertise. The one reason why this continues to be off the table in Canada is due to a lack of in person classroom experience. In my mind, that can be gained during the year of articling at a law firm or via a current job. I could go on, but am running out of room. Thanks.
  • Surface Land Admin

    kay slaw
    I am an individual who had no choice but to opt-out of post secondary until the age of 22. At that age I also had to choose a program that would land me a job because of my economic circumstance. Now, I'm stonewalled because I don't have a degree. I am working towards one now, online. Because I need to work. I work 9 hrs/d with people. Then I go online and do 4 hrs of post-secondary work. I have people skills coming out my ying-yang. Online not being as good as face-to-face? As good, in a different way (different barriers to communication.) it doesn't mean the information cannot be learned, just that it is learned in an unconventional manner. I have experienced in class and online, at Uni, College and private school. By far the most rigorous is online. The discipline required is highly demanding. I feel like I have learned more in an online environment than ftf, when the course is designed properly. It's old style mgm styles that stop everything from progressing. Think creatively peeps