Today is the payment deadline for the $3,164 fee levied by the Law Society of Upper Canada to fund its controversial new Law Practice Program, an alternate pathway to licensing for those unable or unwilling to secure articles. Regular readers of Slaw will recall that when the fee was announced in February, law students rallied against it – a petition calling for a more just and equitable model of funding the experimental program garnered more than 800 signatures.
While a few sympathetic benchers spoke up at Convocation in favour of the petition, the Law Society took no action. The chair of its professional competence & development committee, Janet Minor – since elected Treasurer of the LSUC – wrote licensee candidates a letter, promising that the fee would be re-evaluated in the next budget cycle and directing the students toward monthly payment schemes and loans.
Treasurer Minor’s message is depressingly familiar for those of us who oppose the high fees that act as access barriers to the profession – including bar fees, astronomical law school tuition, and now the LPP fee. The response to our lobbying efforts is always the same: If you can’t afford it, go into debt.
The controversy over the LPP fee has highlighted the Ontario bar’s increasing reliance on debt as a mechanism for providing the next generation of lawyers access to membership in the legal profession. This reliance has tremendous negative effects for law students, recent graduates, and the public in need of legal services. It is high time that the legal profession demonstrated some leadership and addressed the problem.
Only the very wealthy can afford to graduate from law school debt free. At the low end, law tuition in Ontario is more than $15,000 per year – and at the high end, more than $30,000. A study commissioned by Ontario’s law deans found that in 2004, 40% of law students graduated with personal debt of more than $40,000; a third of those expected to graduate more than $70,000 in debt. In the ten years since that study, law tuition in Ontario has increased 150-200%. It is a safe bet that debt levels have increased at the same rate.
For law students, tremendous personal debt means curbing our career expectations and tailoring our conduct to the expectations of a conservative hypothetical employer. A friend told me last year that while she would have preferred to apply to Legal Aid or a community clinic, she felt forced by her debt to apply to full-service corporate/commercial firms. The Deans’ report found that my friend isn’t alone: 1 in 3 second year law students reported that their debt had a substantial impact on their articling and practising decisions. The report states that many of these students “felt obliged to seek out high-paying positions rather than those in public service or smaller communities.” In fact, for these students, “the area of law in which they hoped to practise was the aspect of their academic and personal lives they believed was most affected by their debt.”
There is nothing wrong with wanting to work in national, full-service firms or to practise corporate/commercial law. But law students should not feel coerced to practise in those fields of law for fear of not otherwise being able to pay back a mountain of personal debt – particularly when there is a pressing need for low-cost legal services in criminal, family and civil law in Ontario.
For graduates, the high debt levels required to provide access to the legal profession exacerbate existing gender and race inequality. The simple, unjust truth is that wage discrimination is alive and well in the Ontario bar. A 2010 study sponsored by the LSUC found that white male lawyers started their careers with a $4,000-$8,000 lead in average annual salary over racialised persons and women in the profession. And that lead only widens with age – by 35, white male lawyers made, on average, $50,000 more per year than lawyers of colour.
Differences in income mean differences in the rate at which loans can be repaid. Those making more will pay back their loans more quickly, accruing nominal interest; those making less will take longer, and will likely pay tens of thousands of dollars in interest alone. By relying on debt to finance access to membership in the legal profession, we effectively give the rich and privileged a discount on becoming lawyers.
Finally, the public is adversely affected by the impact of debt on law students and graduates. Licensee candidates will be attracted to articling and associate positions with corporate/commercial firms in large urban centres, where in addition to a very attractive salary, they can expect to have the LPP fee, bar fees, and even tuition in some cases subsidized or paid in full. Smaller firms in smaller cities and community clinics – those doing most to fulfill the profession’s mandate for providing access to justice – cannot offer the benefit of such subsidies. Recent law graduates cannot focus on providing affordable legal services when their degree comes with six figures of debt.
Faced with increasing costs, law schools and professional regulators have succumbed to the temptation to shift the burden of paying to the next generation of lawyers. They deal with the associated access barriers by facilitating and promoting government loans and personal lines of credit. But easy solutions are rarely the best – our heavy reliance on debt to provide access to membership in the legal profession has a significant adverse impact on students, graduates and the public at large.
So what can we do about it? The LPP fee is perhaps the easiest to address. The Law Society could increase licensing fees to lawyers by about $100 and do away with the fee almost entirely. If you are a bencher, bring it up at the next meeting of the Convocation; if you are a lawyer, reach out to benchers with whom you have connections and encourage them to establish a more equitable means of financing access to the legal profession.
Law tuition fees pose a more difficult problem. The profession is not responsible for setting these fees; that task falls to each individual university’s Board of Governors, which sets it budget in the context of woefully inadequate post-secondary funding. To reduce law school tuition would require Boards of Governors willing to demonstrate leadership, government willing to invest, and lawyers ready to pay their proportionate share in higher taxes.
Lawyers can help by writing to their colleagues and contacts within government and university administration, encouraging them to take action. Boards of Governors should be encouraged to freeze tuition immediately and to demand sufficient investment from government to allow fees to be gradually reduced and eliminated. Government should be shown that there is political will for higher proportional taxation to fund that sort of investment. Ours is one of the wealthiest professions in the country – we must show government that we are willing to pay our fair share so that we can secure the future of the next generation of lawyers.
The profession isn’t powerless to act in this sphere, either. As professional regulator and accrediting body, the Law Society can demand that law schools develop a plan to reduce tuition fees in order to maintain accreditation. They no doubt have significant sway in the offices of government: adding their voice to the chorus calling for action on law tuition would go a long way.
Our profession’s reliance on debt to finance access for future members is heavily entrenched, at least in Ontario. Setting things right will take a lot of hard work. But set things right we must, if we care about the well-being of law students, income equality amongst law graduates, and access to legal services for the public. I am confident that we do, and that we will rise to the challenge.
You can follow Chris Rudnicki on twitter @rudniculous