Access to Justice Starts With Legal Tuition

The practical skills gained through legal education help young lawyers service the public more effectively. However, the burden of legal tuition may prevent lawyers from entering these areas of practice until they’re already in mid-career, if at all.

Many undergraduate students evaluate their options after graduation, and consider doing graduate work or professional education like law school. At this point most students are already burdened with debt but are still interested in increasing their employability in the long-term.

New studies by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) explore the opportunities for graduate students in the province:

Doctoral enrolments in Ontario universities have nearly doubled over the last decade, with roughly two-thirds of doctoral students hoping to become university professors. Considering that Canadian full-time professors are now the highest paid in the world – working more hours but enjoying better job satisfaction than their counterparts in other countries – it’s a worthy goal.

Doctoral students in Ontario nearly doubled between 1999 to 2009, but HEQCO identifies some concerns among this cohort:

Estimates are that less than 25% of PhD students in Canada will secure full-time, tenure-stream research and teaching positions, prompting a growing angst among current and newly minted PhDs about their preparedness for life in a non-academic career.

The studies conclude that the costs of a PhD can be worth it if the students are able to secure teaching positions, typically catching up to workers with undergraduate degrees after two decades. The benefits of a Masters degree was only slightly less than a PhD, making it an attractive alternative for students looking to universally maximize their gains.

In a discussion of the HEQCO studies in The Globe by Simona Chiose states:

As law and business schools remind us, the dollar amount of the tuition and foregone income doesn’t matter if the debt is wiped out after a few high-earning years.
[emphasis added]

The key point here is that young lawyers are often compelled to work in high-earning positions in order to recover losses from tuition and lost opportunities. Understandably, high earning positions in law typically involve serving high earning clients. The costs of legal education are therefore part of the costs of legal services which are indirectly passed on to the general public, who still find legal services largely unaffordable.

Chris Rudnicki of University of Windsor law school has attracted some attention recently by pointing out that if law school tuition in Ontario had risen with inflation it would be approximately $3,500.

In a report developed on behalf of The Justice At Work committee, Rudnicki recently stated:

There is no question that the cost of legal education has risen exponentially since deregulation under the Progressive Conservative government in 1998. Faced with shrinking government grants and tuition caps for other programs, the University of Windsor raised law tuition from $4,010.36 per year in 1998 to $14,556.60 today – an increase of more than 300%, far greater than the rate of inflation. Students are forced to take on tremendous public and private debt to finance their education, and as a result are pushed to be more conservative and corporate than they otherwise would.

The report continues to indicate that students from non-affluent backgrounds are forced to overlook opportunities which would service more marginalized members of society. The consequence of these choices are that they feel pressured by the culture of the legal community to avoid advocacy because to do otherwise may inadvertently offend colleagues and partners from more privileged and insulated backgrounds.

In other words, the financial pressures of legal tuition force young lawyers to curb their enthusiasm and miss out entirely on the very advocacy work which could help hone their critical appraisal necessary for litigation.

Sarah Rankin of the University of Toronto law school indicates in The Globe that 2/3 of the faculty there have called for a tuition freeze. Broader support for tuition freezes are growing generally, and the Ontario Minister of Education has expressed some preliminary thoughts that he plans on terminating the customary 5 per cent increases.

Austerity measures defy Keynesian economics – unless of course the restrictions are placed on generating revenue from future professionals who plan on servicing the under-serviced. I still don’t believe in blaming the law schools, yet it seems clear to me that they will still play a significant role in the transformation of legal services to come. Tough financial times may be ahead for post-secondary education, but there may be some broader benefits for society.


  1. John P Mayer (@johnpmayer)

    I had never quite heard this argument made this way before – that high law school tuition results in less justice for public service law jobs. Graduates can barely afford to accept positions like public defenders, assistance attorney generals, district attorneys, county attorneys, etc. They are forcefully disincentivised from public advocacy works like legal aid, volunteer advocacy and other non-profits.

    At the same time, in the US, funds for legal aid and public defenders, courts and public law libraries are being cut resulting in even less access to justice.

  2. Bob Tarantino

    High law school tuition fees as an “output” access-to-justice issue (by which I mean that high tuition somehow dampens the number of lawyers working in non-Big Law positions) has never struck me as a convincing, or even demonstrated, argument (though high tuition fees as an “input” problem is a fairly obvious conclusion: the cost of tuition will necessarily dissuade or prevent some people from going to law school in the first place).

    Whether high tuition has resulted in fewer law school graduates working in non-Big Law positions, or fewer graduates servicing marginalized clientele/communities (let’s call them “targeted clients” for short) should be fairly simple to assess:

    – were more law school graduates servicing targeted clients prior to the deregulation of tuition than are currently doing so?

    – in law schools or jurisdictions (such as Quebec) where tuition has either been frozen or has risen by an amount more in line with inflation, are more law school graduates servicing targeted clients as compared to law schools or jurisdictions where tuition has increased in excess of the inflation rate?

    While high law school tuition is a problem (and I think it is, because of the “input” reason I mentioned earlier), I don’t think anyone has managed to demonstrate (i.e., using something other than anecdotes) that it’s a problem because it is skewing the types of legal practice into which graduates are being funneled.

  3. Bob,
    The challenge here is similar to the one we face in tracking diversity in the field; we simply do not have the data to make statistically significant findings.

    We’re left with qualitative data, and there are countless anecdotes of people who went to law school for one reason but practice in an entirely different area due to economic considerations.

    I would like to see, for example, entrance interviews for students going to law school. Although it exists as an input issue, students across Canada dream of attending McGill just for its low domestic tuition.

    What we can potentially use is the considerable amount of information available about Gen X and Y and their respective debt and cost of living issues. We know that they face very different challenges than previous generations, and have far more limited opportunities and career stability. In this larger data set beyond just lawyers there are some studies suggesting that lower tuition can impact enrollment patterns, and there are some studies indicating that debt may not affect career choices. But Rothstein and Rouse were able to find a link between higher debt and the choice of a higher paying job over a public interest one.