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The Ryerson Law School Proposal: Is Now the Right Time?

1L Sean Costen weighs the pros and cons of Ryerson's proposed law school

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The proposed Ryerson University Law School came one step closer to becoming a reality last month when it received preliminary approval from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada. The suggestion of an eighth law school being launched in Ontario has generated a wealth of discussion within the legal community.

Ryerson’s proposal sets out an “innovation-focused approach” that is intended to address three distinct social needs: increasing access to justice, improving diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, and equipping students with the transferrable skills they need to be more career ready when they come out of school.

Access to Justice

There is a real access to justice issue within Ontario and Canada, and the concept of mitigating such a societal problem lends credence to the pro-Ryerson law school discourse. According to a 2013 report by the Canadian Bar Association, in recent years there has been a significant increase in the rate of unrepresented and under-represented litigants. It is estimated that 10% to 80% of litigants, depending on the type of case, are unrepresented, with the vast majority of these individuals stating that they would prefer to have access to legal counsel. Furthermore, the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Action Committee suggests that 20% of Canadians take no meaningful action in response to their legal issues. Of this group, between 42% and 90% of them identify the preventative costs of legal assistance as the reason for this inaction.

Ryerson’s proposal articulates a plan to address the affordability issue by equipping students with the skills needed to deal with social justice issues and social innovation. The proposal highlights Ryerson’s recent growth into a hub for entrepreneurial innovation. It plans to leverage these capabilities and to offer a variety of required courses that revolve around technological and social innovation, with the aim of finding ways to make legal services more accessible to those who are underserved.

Diversity & Inclusion

The proposal also outlines the barriers that exist for many minority groups in entering the legal profession and ascending into senior positions. The legal profession lags behind many other industries in relation to the promotion of inclusivity and diversity of backgrounds. The proposal notes that action needs to be taken to keep pace with the increasing diversity of the Canadian population. Pointing to its longstanding commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion through its student recruitment, faculty hiring, and innovative curricular offerings, Ryerson suggests that it is in the right position to address this challenge in the legal profession.

Career Readiness

Ryerson cites an American survey by LexisNexis in which 35% of surveyed students responded that they felt unequipped to have success in the legal profession, and 65% stated that that they were not taught the practical business skills that were needed. The proposal sets out an innovation-focused approach and unique course curriculum that it says will better equip students with the core competencies and transferrable real-world skills that students need to have success in the legal profession.

The Argument Opposing the Ryerson Law School

While Ryerson’s proposal identifies legitimate social needs and concerns that relate to the legal community, it is unclear whether the addition of new law school is the most appropriate avenue for addressing such challenges. Whether Ryerson is in a position to address these challenges more effectively than the seven existing Ontario law schools is dubious, as the strategy outlined does not appear to offer much in the way of innovative and tangible solutions to the issues raised.  The challenges outlined in the proposal are widely known already, and the proposal’s representation of the existing “traditional” legal education framework fails to acknowledge efforts that have been made by law schools to increase access to justice, improve diversity in the legal profession, and better equip students with the tools they need to succeed in their legal careers.

Further to this, and perhaps more importantly, any benefits associated with the addition of an eighth Ontario law school need to be considered together with and weighed against any potential negative impact that such a program may have.

Job availability within the legal profession is a necessary consideration; as a first-year law student with my own interests in mind, the potential impact of an additional law school is worrisome. Enrolment in Ontario law schools has risen steadily over the last 20 years, from 1,091 in 1997 to 1,549 in 2016. Based on limited data, in recent years, this increased enrolment has coincided with declining articling placement rates. According to the 2011 Articling Task Force Consultation Report by the Law Society of Upper Canada, the unplaced rate for articling positions increased from 5.8% to 12.1% between 2008 and 2011 (though it should be noted that Queen’s saw its articling placement rate increase from 2015 to 2017). From 2011 to 2016, enrolment increased another 13%, creating an even more competitive market for articling positions. The addition of the Ryerson law school (proposed enrolment of 150 students) would increase Ontario law school enrolment by approximately 10%, and further exacerbate this problem.

A 2015 report from the Council of Ontario Universities states that 94% of law graduates are employed within two years of graduation. While the return on investment of a legal education appears to still be high, in the absence of an increase in job opportunities for law school graduates, the addition of another law school would likely have a notable impact on job prospects going forward. Though the social needs discussed by Ryerson in its law school proposal are certainly valid, it is crucial to critically evaluate the efficacy of the proposed solutions, and to weigh the potential benefits against the drawbacks. At the end of the day, the opportunities for law school graduates are limited by the number of positions that are made available to them.

What’s Next?

Following its preliminary approval by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, the proposed Ryerson law program must now be approved by the Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities, pursuant to the Degree Granting Act. The current target is for the law school to be fully operational in September 2020.

Sean Costen is a 1L Staff Writer.

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