Law student survey raises red flags over access to legal education

Law student survey raises red flags over access to legal education
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Padraigin Murphy, a second-year law student at the University of Toronto, has a hero. The hero is a friend of Murphy’s who graduated from law school and is now an articling student at a full-service law firm in a small rural community. Her annual salary? $30,000. Her debt load from law school? More than $100,000.

“Needless to say, that results in a paycheque-to-paycheque situation for her,” says Murphy. “We need to see it be possible for more students to fill those gaps.”

This is a real-world illustration of one of the issues raised by a Law Students Society of Ontario survey of 941 law students from five law schools — University of Windsor, Western University, Osgoode Hall Law School, University of Ottawa, and University of Toronto — conducted online in the winter 2014 term.

The students who took the survey indicated, among other things, their career objectives changed due to the financial burden of law school. They identified what they can “afford” to do when they graduated was narrowed by their debt load. This is not good news for access to justice, especially for communities that need it the most.

Law Students Society of Ontario president Douglas Judson says the survey results focused on some general themes but they also revealed complexities of the issues.

For instance, people tend to think legal education is not very representative of the public lawyers that want to serve. Judson says that’s true, but not necessarily in the way everyone thinks. Law schools, he says, are actually doing better on a lot of traditional measures of diversity — for example, law schools have eight per cent more visible minorities represented than in the general public.

The survey shows specifically where legal education is lagging.

“We have about half the proportion of aboriginal students or students from rural communities, which is particularly unfortunate because those communities could benefit from having people not only in the profession but able to go back and serve those communities and understand those legal needs,” he says.

“A focus on diversity has emerged as an important thing in the legal industry and legal education but it needs to be a bit more complex — look at classes and lived experiences.”

For Murphy, the attention drawn by the survey to issues she herself is facing made its release “really, really exciting.” As a law student at the school with the highest tuition, she says her low-income background has made increasing tuition a barrier for her, and the survey shows she is not alone. High tuition fees are making law school, if not completely inaccessible, a definite burden for students from middle- or low- income backgrounds.

“It’s an issue for social mobility, but also an issue if we want a legal profession and a justice system that Ontarians see themselves reflected in,” says Murphy.

The legal community generally has welcomed the survey results, says Judson. He mentions an invitation from the law society treasurer for LSSO members to sit on the treasurer’s liason group and therefore having a seat at the table; the Law Society of Upper Canada is looking at alternative licensing pathways; and the CBA Legal Futures Initiative, which talked about changes in how legal education is funded.

Judson also talks about Osgoode’s alternative financial aid mechanism, the Income Contingent Loan Pilot Program. Last week, Osgoode announced the five-year pilot project, which will have $1 million for a minimum of five JD students per year offered admission to the law school on an income-contingent loan basis. That means while at Osgoode, the eligible students would not pay tuition. When their income allows them to do so, they will begin to repay the loan. If they never reach an income level that allows them to pay back the money, the loan is completely forgiven.

Judson says he is impressed by the concept, and thinks it’s a great way to reach out to people who might not apply for law school thinking they can’t afford it. The program will be an interesting experiment, he says.

Law schools are getting to the point with their student financial aid systems where they can’t wait for government to act. Having this program at Osgoode will make it responsive to the students’ needs and the particular program needs, he says.

“The devil is still in the details and we are still waiting for them to iron out what they determine to be the income threshold for payment, if and what the interest rate will be, and all of those things but overall I think the concept is really brilliant, I think it’s novel, and I think it will be really interesting to see what happens to application numbers for the class of 2018,” says Judson.

Osgoode has been focused on increasing financial eligibility and already has a range of accessibility options, including bursary and scholarship programs that help law students out with over $3.5 million annually in financial assistance. Other universities such as the University of Toronto are also making efforts to support students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford their tuition.
“For me what this is about is how do we put the mechanisms in place to ensure that the people who are in the profession tomorrow are best able to serve the public and understand the public need. Maybe it’s not entirely a cost or tuition discussion but I think those are important variables in that story,” Judson says.

Murphy agrees the report more than anything should start the conversation and showcase what’s been happening at different schools across Ontario.

She is confident all the players are in a good position for the discussion to happen, noting the survey definitely doesn’t claim that it has all the answers.

“I don’t think we have a particular solution in mind,” Murphy says. “We know this is a big problem, a lot of moving parts.”

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