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Admissions Season Reflections

This spring, I read 200 applications from people who want to study law at the University of Windsor. Our law school, like every other in Ontario, receives more than eight applications for each available place in first year. Across the province, there are roughly 4300 applicants for 1600 spots. The figures are comparable across the country; Canada still has among the fewest law school spots per capita in the developed world.

Those of us on admissions committees must rank applicants on the basis of our respective institutions’ admissions criteria. We must recommend that many people who want to study law not be allowed to do so. The demand for 1L seats greatly exceeds supply. So we must reject many people who, so far as we can tell, could possibly succeed as law students and lawyers if they were admitted.

Serving on this committee may be the most difficult part of my job. It’s a lot of reading, and it is sometimes quite hard to make objective decisions based on the criteria. (One of the rewards, for me, has been better understanding of the work done by judges).

Shutting Someone’s Door

Admissions committee work is also troubling for another reason. It feels wrong to tell people who want to study law, and are prepared to spend the necessary time and money to do so, that they are not allowed to, for reasons of capacity. At Windsor Law we consider many criteria: admission essays, LSAT, extracurricular record, undergraduate grades, reference letters, and more. However there are very few applicants for whom I feel certain that success is impossible. It is no small thing to tell someone that they shouldn’t have the chance to pursue what seems, in many cases, to be a long-standing and sincere ambition.

Some post-secondary education programs — including some law schools — give every marginally qualified applicant a chance. Open admission policies are found at universities such as the City University of New York and many universities in France. In England and Australia, law is an undergraduate program, and not much more difficult to get into than most other undergrad programs. These institutions staff themselves to meet the demand for the education they provide. Students who are unable to succeed, or unwilling to do the work, fail and leave in or after first year.

Ripple Effects

What would happen if one or more law schools were to liberalize admissions policy?

  • More people would enroll. This includes some of the Canadians who currently take expensive foreign programs because they can’t get in here. This group would save a lot of time and money if they were permitted to study in their own country.
  • Queen’s Park might decide not to contribute money for some or all of the new students. This is the position regarding Ryerson’s new law school: students are eligible for OSAP student loans but the government won’t contribute any extra funding to Ryerson for the law school. However, law school is currently funded mostly by tuition, not by the government. Despite the lack of direct new government funding, Ryerson’s tuition will apparently be toward the bottom of the range for Ontario law schools. (Although Windsor Law is slightly cheaper and, in my totally unbiased view, better).
  • Right now, almost no one fails out of law school. Under a more liberal admissions policy, more students would probably fail, after investing time and money to attend. These students might prefer to have been denied admission, if it could have been reliably predicted that they would fail.
  • Some, perhaps most, of the newly admitted students would eventually graduate. Most of them would probably want to become lawyers and would therefore enter a lawyer licensing program. Right now, the overwhelming majority of the relatively elite group admitted to law school eventually pass the licensing program and are called to the bar. Among the new enrollees, a larger proportion would probably fail the bar exams. Some of these people might wish they had never been admitted, given that they would, prior to failing, have invested 3 years and over $60,000 in the process. Others in this group might value and make use of their legal education even without being called to the bar. Some would become licensed paralegals or find other work making use of the degree.
  • Many in the expanded cohort would obtain licenses in Ontario or elsewhere. However some of these would not find employment as lawyers. Others would have employment opportunities as lawyers, but not opportunities in regions or practice niches in which they would be willing to practice.
  • The supply of legal services would increase, and some legal fees would fall. Some would-be clients who cannot currently find lawyers that they can afford would be able to do so.
  • Possibly, the quality of the legal services offered by the new enrollees would be lower than that offered by the current enrollees.
  • Current lawyers, especially newer calls, would face some more competition. This might mean somewhat lower salaries and more competition for jobs. This should not be disregarded, especially in the case of new calls looking to get started in the profession. However, it is very hard to believe that intentionally suppressing competition is a good reason to restrict access to education.

On Balance

I believe that decisions about admissions policies, like all other public policy decisions, should be designed to maximize aggregate welfare. In other words, the best admissions rules are those that can be rationally expected to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number, after weighing all of the various effects on new students, clients, existing lawyers, etc. I have not done that research, but I hope someone will.

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