Federation Preliminarily Approves Ryerson Law School

The Federation of Law Societies of Canada has provided preliminary approval for the new law school at Ryerson University.

This approval was based on a detailed review of the proposed curriculum and the resources in the Ryerson plan. The curriculum is what really sets Ryerson apart, with a particular emphasis on technology, access to justice, and social innovation. The curriculum also has mandatory classes on social innovation and the law, Indigenous law, legal innovation, the business of law, and issues of diversity in the legal profession.

The full Federation report, which details this curriculum, is available here.

Where Ryerson may have more challenges is in the resources proposed for the law school. Ryerson is situated in the core of downtown Toronto. It is the real urban university, surrounded on all sides with commercial activity, plenty of public pedestrians, and even addiction and homelessness. The Federation report states,

Law schools are required to demonstrate that they have sufficient physical resources to accommodate both the faculty and student body and promote effective student learning. Ryerson is proposing to utilize existing building space for the law school until such time as it can incorporate the eventual law faculty in new, appropriately fitted space, a process for which Ryerson states it has had significant experience and success. In reviewing the proposed classroom and “free” spaces available to students, the Approval Committee was of the view that the physical resources are adequate, but that any additional pressures or changes (planned or unforeseen) on these spaces would not permit effective student learning. The Committee will be monitoring this issue as it has the potential to escalate to a deficiency, especially if a new law faculty space does not go forward as planned. In response, Ryerson indicated that should such pressures occur the University will utilize transitional spaces in other buildings until a permanent space in immediate proximity to the law campus can be arranged. Ryerson also stated that if space pressures continue in the long term, the arrangements will be adjusted accordingly.

Ryerson has snatched up every single available square inch of potential teaching space in the downtown core, including providing classes on occasion in the Cineplex theatre at Yonge-Dundas. I’ve never taught in that room, but I’m told that the students enjoy eating popcorn during the lectures. Popcorn and Torts is a class I wouldn’t mind revisiting, personally.

Within this context of physical space the Federation notes a perhaps unusual concern around the lack of a law library in the budget. Louis Mirando has raised some excellent questions around this issue on Slaw earlier this year, and provides some insightful conclusions,

The students will certainly need a place to study, especially group study spaces for collaborative work. Faculty (and possibly students) will need access to a research-quality library collection, but that doesn’t need to be in the law school…

Someone will need to teach legal writing and research (LRW); but what that LRW curriculum would look like, how it would be taught and by whom in an experientially-based law program focussing on practice skills hasn’t yet been determined. The eventual impact of artificial intelligence on legal research and legal practice must be considered. The school may need a “reserve” collection for essential texts not available online, but whether even that collection need be ready-to-hand is a consideration. Perhaps one of the innovations we might anticipate from a Ryerson law school is the development of open-access textbooks and course packs which might reduce dependency on a traditional reserve collection.

…A new law school committed to new ways of teaching law is a unique opportunity to evaluate the concepts of “library”, “information” and “technology” within legal education. I hope Ryerson will seriously consider the nature and role of a law library – and law librarians – in this brave new legal world.

Some of the innovative businesses currently operating out of the Legal Innovation Zone (LIZ) may make these calls for a physical library somewhat antiquated. Clausehound, whose founder, Rajah Lehal, is well known in legal technology circles, recently discussed at the 2017 Ontario Bar Association TECHxpo how his product is disrupting the practice of law.

Though case books on contract law may still be needed to learn to read and analyze cases and observe how the common law develops ideas and principles, learning how to draft a contract in the future of legal practice has more to do with working with digital libraries that are annotated and include practical advice on how to use different clauses effectively. Ryerson already has areas of expertise in its faculty on big data and analytics, and would be able to take products and ideas like this to the next level.

The Federation also expressed a concern over faculty to student ratios, given the proposed tenured-track faculty complement. Although there are no shortages of lawyers interested in teaching, including those with graduate degrees, Ryerson may want to reconsider how it approaches the implementation of instructors in the classroom.

All historic full-time job postings in the recent past in Ryerson’s law courses require a PhD. Ostensibly this is to demonstrate an ability to publish, but realistically this likely has to do more with Ministry funding and ability to secure grants. A law school focused on practical implementation of law, with a focus on technology and access to justice, would probably want lawyers proficient in coding and artificial intelligence, as well as activists from our community with long track records in working on social issues related to law. There are some life experiences in practice that a doctorate simply can never replace.

Ministry funding has a much more practical impact though on planning, as the Federation also highlights a concern that if Ryerson is unsuccessful in obtaining provincial funding, the proposed tuition of $20,000 may be unfeasible. While downtown Toronto teaching space is expensive, and those costs need to be paid from somewhere, high tuition rates have a direct impact on access to justice in the profession. No amount of scholarships or grants have made law school affordable for those who are truly talented but just cannot afford the tuition and living expenses.

Alternatives that have been used successfully in other schools or otherwise proposed include a certain number of seats of lower tuition for those experiencing financial hardships, public-private partnerships for projects and initiatives in the areas of legal technology and artificial intelligence to provide salaries while in law school, and a tuition forgiveness program for those who enroll in post-graduate access to justice programs.

One particular idea that I’ve proposed is the housing of an incubator program at a law school, similar to what we’ve operated at Fleet Street Law. Our experiences and similar successes in other law schools, primarily in the U.S., was detailed recently in a special December 2017 issue in the Windsor Yearbook for Access to Justice, Innovation and Access to Justice: Addressing the Challenge of a Diverse Justice Ecosystem, available here,

With law school graduates encountering increased difficulty in securing articling positions, legal incubators are an alternative way of providing practical training and mentorship opportunities for young practitioners. Not only do they have the potential to help launch careers in law, but they can also play a major role in increasing access to justice. Though legal incubators have been gaining popularity in law schools across the United States, they are still a novel concept in Canada. This article discusses the resources and practice models used by Fleet Street Law, a law practice in Toronto that evolved into the first legal incubator in Canada. The use of innovative business models allowed for greater service of low income and marginalized populations, especially on a “low-bono” rate, and also assisted in providing essential supports for racialized and minority lawyers early in their career. The flexible and innovative nature of a legal incubator was beneficial for the purposes of experimentation, but there were challenges associated with cost and long-term participation. The model of a practitioner-based incubator, as an alternative to traditional-type clinics, should be strongly considered by law schools to help address some of the market needs in the legal community today.

Not only would such a model help address concerns about post-graduate articling positions and work experiences, but it would also help facilitate the access to justice and technology focuses of the proposed law school.

Perhaps most notable is that there is not a single “deficiency” in the Federation report, which would indicate a non-compliance with a component of the National Requirement, updated for Jan. 1, 2018. This suggests that as long as Ryerson is able to control the issues around the concerns identified above, a new law school will likely be on the near horizon.

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