Ryerson’s proposed law school aims to fill gap in legal market

After a year and a half of internal consultation, Ryerson University has taken the first steps towards opening its own JD program.

On Oct. 20, the law school originating committee released a letter of intent following initial consultations with the community. The committee, comprised of faculty members from across disciplines, used community feedback to write the letter of intent, which is the first step in the process of developing the JD program. On its website, the university states “the proposed program focuses on innovation in legal education for the benefit of graduates, their communities, and the broader society.”

Chris Bentley, executive director of the Legal Innovation Zone and Law Practice Program at Ryerson, says the law school being proposed is fundamentally different than what’s on offer currently. He says when people talk about challenges law students have securing articling and full-time positions, they forget the multiple studies talking about unmet legal need.

“If you’re in another business, you get innovative,” he says. “You say that’s a market — in Canada, and North America, it’s a market for millions and millions of dollars. There’s work out there we’re not going after as lawyers because we can’t change fast enough to get that market. If we don’t change others are going to get it.”

Bentley says the challenges law students face after graduating have to do with out-of-date legal training, not lack of need.

Ryerson also released a whitepaper entitled Training Tomorrow’s Legal Professionals that says the legal practitioners of the future need different skills than lawyers from 20 years ago. New lawyers will “need to be creative and skilled problem solvers, strategic planners, and process managers with the financial literacy, technological competency, and entrepreneurial spirit needed to serve consumers.” To achieve this, they need a “dramatically different” law school experience, which is what Ryerson says its proposed program will offer — a law school designed to specifically address issues in the legal industry.

“We don’t have a law school that’s graduating this kind of student — not yet, not until we set it up and launch it,” Bentley says.

“We all know the struggles society is facing when it comes to the law — it’s unaffordable, too complex, too slow, we haven’t involved technology as we should. If you train people in the traditional way you’re going to get more of the traditional approach.”

He adds that the entrepreneurial and innovative energy Ryerson bases its programs on is something the law desperately needs. He says Ryerson’s proposed law school offers a great opportunity to prepare lawyers to “grab a piece of the unmet legal need out there.”

One of the mandates of the new program is to incorporate the relevant elements of the Legal Innovation Zone and Law Practice Program, the latter of which is under review by the Law Society of Upper Canada. The law society recommended the LPP be cancelled after the committee’s report — which was based on surveys and focus groups with employers and candidates — said despite positive reviews, it fell short of providing a sustainable alternative to articling that was accepted by candidates and the legal profession. Bentley says the fate of the LPP is still up in the air as only a sub-committee of the law society has spoken on the issue. Full convocation still has to weigh in so nothing will be finalized until Nov. 9, Bentley says, adding that he’s still hopeful.

Ryerson has long been after its own law school, publically announcing its intention to start the internal process to develop one a year after the launch of the English LPP.

“The practical, hands-on experience Ryerson has gained in administering the Legal Innovation Zone and Law Practice Program will be utilized in developing and delivering the program’s curriculum,” states the whitepaper.

“This includes the incorporation of the entrepreneurial aspects of legal education, the use of simulated online legal files and in-class role-playing, the formalization of mentorship relationships, and employment of the most recent electronic tools. All represent key pillars of the new program and will form the basis of Ryerson’s distinctive approach to legal education.”

In an email, Law Society of Upper Canada spokeswoman Susan Tonkin said the law society is “interested in and following Ryerson’s proposal, but it’s still very early days in the process.”

Ryerson, which hosted the first of two town halls for students, faculty and staff on Oct. 25, is offering the second town hall on Oct. 27 and asking for input from the community before Nov. 17.

The letter of intent is the formal step needed for getting internal Senate approval at Ryerson, Bentley says, and after all consultations are held a final proposal will be sent to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the LSUC for approval, as well as to the Ontario government for funding.

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