A law degree with added value (that can’t be taught)

A law degree with added value (that can’t be taught)
Sometime in June 2014, a group of law students will, one by one, cross a stage, shake a few hands, pose for a picture, and receive a scroll of paper. The scroll will likely be a ceremonial stand-in for the occasion while the official document is pending.

That document will contain the name of the institution, the law student’s name, the date, and some words to the effect the undersigned, who have been duly appointed, officially recognize the respective student has fulfilled all the requirements needed to receive a Juris Doctor degree.

As lawyers know all too well there is a form for most things and so the words on that degree will be nearly identical to the words on law degrees from every other Canadian law school. The effect of those words, whether they come from Osgoode Hall Law School or the University of Alberta, will be to convey the person named is now qualified to pursue the next step in becoming a lawyer.

The words will be identical, but will they have the same value? That is the question potential employers, law students, and clients will have on their minds next year when they see the words: Juris Doctor, Thompson Rivers University.

For those inquisitive people, let me provide some personal context.

The person who receives a JD from Thompson Rivers University will have courageously stepped into a completely unknown situation to break ground and lay the foundation for those who will follow. They will have shouldered the heavy burden of building crucial student institutions and support groups from scratch. They will have attended lectures in classrooms designed to be computer labs, were overheated, and well overcapacity. They will have spent hundreds of hours studying in crowded and noisy halls because of building delays and a lack of dedicated space.

They will also have spent tens of thousands of dollars more on tuition because unlike our contemporaries at most, if not all, other Canadian law schools, TRU law receives no dedicated funding from the province. It is, effectively, a student-funded law school in a publicly funded institution.

This fact, above all others, may be the most damaging thing about TRU law. Before a single law student walked through the doors, the university’s administration and the Government of British Columbia had agreed that TRU’s JD program would be a cost-recovery program. Since that decision, budget problems and financial projections have simply eviscerated the growing potential for the law school.

It is, as one of my witty peers put it, as if, “TRU bought a Porsche because it would impress everyone, but neglected to think about maintenance and fuel costs.”

It must be noted the Faculty of Law at TRU, led by former dean Chris Axworthy and interim dean Anne Pappas, has fought tirelessly against the deliberate incompetence of the university administration. It should be repeated that every member of the Faculty of Law has undertaken super-human efforts to make good on a promise to TRU law students that they will leave with an outstanding legal education.

While it is impossible to measure the true impact that excellent institutional support has on a legal education, one simply cannot underestimate the importance of it. By the time they enter the professional world, the TRU law graduate will have faced 10 times more uncertainty than a person with a JD from another institution in the same year. They will have developed, by necessity, the skills needed to meet the ubiquitous standards required to earn a JD in the face of unprecedented challenges and an unconscionable lack of support from a university administration that plans to hold them out as shining examples.

Starting in 2014, the professional world will have its first opportunity to hire graduates who are equipped to succeed in the face of adversity and great uncertainty. Most importantly, because of choices and events completely out of their control, TRU law grads will have no choice but to apply their skills with a work ethic and determination to succeed in the professional and academic world that isn’t normally required of an everyday JD graduate.

So, for the employer, prospective student, or client who has in their mind the question: What is a JD from TRU law worth?

Only time will answer that question, but let me say one more time that there are skills that come with a JD from TRU law that can’t be taught and can’t be articulated on a piece of paper.

Chris Albinati will be completing his JD in 2014 at Thompson Rivers University Faculty of Law.

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