Law schools as engines for social change

As part of a recent symposium on innovation in legal education held at Ryerson University in Toronto, four leaders in the profession spoke candidly about the role of law schools as engines of social transformation and the barriers faced by some trying to access the system.

“I think that the outreach into the community does spectacular things for legal education,” said Mayo Moran, dean of law at the University of Toronto, who began the morning’s discussion.

“Law schools work hard to try to figure out how you can get students to actually understand law in action,” she continued. “There is no better way to do that, actually, than to engage students in real-life problems.”

She gave legal aid clinics and pro bono work in law schools as a few examples of those real-life issues.

“And some of the activities we’re involved in, and other law schools as well, I think do a terrific job of identifying needs in the community,” she said.

She said it doesn’t only benefit the educational process, but also encourages more people to explore law as an option, after seeing others out in the community.

“It can also enhance the recognition of law, and the destination of law school as a place for students to think about going,” she said. “And that in turn, to my mind, enhances the ability of law schools to think about social change, because we bring in people who are going to be critical of the existing institutions.”

But not everyone agreed that law schools are doing their part.

Human rights activist David Lepofksy was critical of the law schools’ role in preparing students to assist in making a better community.

“I believe that the law schools can be a pawn for social transformation,” he said. “I regret that in my experience and in the areas in which I have been spending a fair chunk of volunteer time it hasn’t."

“The first is that we in law school do not teach perhaps the single most important skill in learning — relative to becoming transformative to society,” he continued. “We teach people how to argue cases at the Supreme Court of Canada. Most social transformation doesn’t occur there, and most people who need social transformation can’t afford to go there.”

The skills he says are needed include learning how to organize people, of working out a common agenda, and figuring out who in government can help to implement the action plan.

“I think there is a huge capacity; I think there’s a huge desire on the part of the students; I think we need to transform our curriculum and some of our legal research and our creative legal thinking to meet that agenda,” said Lepofksy.

But schools also need to keep in mind who they are accepting into the programs, and that many people attempting to gain access to the legal profession can face some serious barriers.

Moran admitted the increase in law school tuition has been dramatic over the past decade, but says they are working to find ways of dealing with the challenge.

“There’s a huge obligation on behalf on institutions to think about, in a context of rising costs, which I think will be inevitable,” she said. “We need to be very, very proactive and creative about how we deal with financial aid.”

She admits, though, that it’s a work in progress.

“We are constantly looking at it,” she said.

Lepofksy said there was no denying the financial factor of law school hinders access.

“With respect, the increase in law school tuition over the past 10 years or so is unconscionable. You can’t excuse it, and it is creating a barrier to access.”

And the financial aid options being provided by the schools aren’t working, he said.

“The solution the law schools offer is that they provide financial aid. All you’ve done is created a new private taxation system,” he said. “Tax the rich law students to pay for the poor law students, and the law school becomes not only the taxor but also the social assistance agency. Last time I checked, that was the role of government."

"I think that it’s wrong to target those in law schools who can afford the payments, the excessive tuition, as being the sole subsidizers of those who cant,” said Lepofksy.

The financial concerns create barriers in other ways, as well. Lepofksy gave the example of a single parent who doesn’t want to build up expectations for their children in the future, and in turn discourages them from pursuing the law school option from a young age.

“We’re creating a whole new generation who leave law school with a mortgage but no house. And those folks have to find the biggest paying jobs so that they can pay off that mortgage and maybe eventually buy a house with a mortgage,” said Lepofksy. “And those folks are going to gravitate towards the best paying jobs, not the community services jobs, not the legal clinic jobs, and it’s going to have [a] long-term ripple effect of reducing access to legal services for those who can afford them the least."


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