The Profession of the Privileged

Last week my Facebook feed lit up after the article by Eric Girard, “What I learned at law school: The poor need not apply”, was published in the Globe. Mr. Girard, a 3rd year student at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, was on the verge of leaving school due to his financial circumstances until a friend stepped in and, at the last minute, offered to co-sign a loan. Mr. Girard’s story ends well but it highlights some significant problems with legal education in Canada. The high cost of a legal education puts it out of reach from some students, regardless of merit. In addition, the article alludes to access to justice issues and it got me thinking about the future of the profession.

Back in 2005, when I was a law school student at Queen’s, we paid approximately $8,700 in tuition and fees (if memory serves). We actually benefited from a tuition freeze put in place by the Ontario Liberals in 2003 who, at that time, reacted to calls that tuition levels were too high. Since then, tuition and fees has risen to $18,693 CAD. I don’t need a handy website to tell me that the costs have more than doubled in 10 years (has it been 10 years?!) but tells that it is an increase of 114%. I will let the economists and finance people weigh in on how that should be adjusted for inflation and other “market forces“. (Since when did Newtonian physics enter the market?) I’m also not going to get into the levels of financial support provided by law schools. Many, if not most, of us received non-repayable bursaries and/or scholarships back in 2005. In my mind, a 114% increase is simply staggering. Nuff said.

The consequences of staggeringly high tuition is what really troubles me. High tuition is a barrier to access thus limiting the diversity within the schools and, in turn, the profession as a whole. Mr. Girard found a way to be sufficiently indebted to get himself to the finish line. I can only imagine his elation when, 8 or 10 years down the road perhaps, he is able to pay off his student loans. He does not mention his level of debt but simple calculations from law school websites put the average cost of 3 years of tuition and fees (not including rent or other necessities) at between $55,000 CAD to $100,000 CAD. MacLean’s compared law school tuition across the country and U of T is by far, of course, the most expensive. When cost of living is included, debt levels could easily jump to $90,000 CAD or $180,000 CAD. The point here, which was made very well by Mr. Girard, is that the astronomical costs of 3 years of law school means incurring huge loans and students who do not have access to those loans may not graduate.

I also see bigger issues that may have effects across the profession. I see newly-minted lawyers with a mountain of student loans facing a shortage of articling positions. If they can’t get into the market, how will they pay off the debt? I see new lawyers contemplating how to pay back their $150,000 in student loans in a market where law firms are “offering” unpaid articling positions, or positions that only cover the student’s transit pass. I can only imagine the current levels of stress during OCIs.

I feel privileged to be part of this profession. I feel privileged that I graduated during a time when law school tuition was more affordable. (Thank you JET programme et al.) And I think we should feel privileged to have the financial means to pay for law school or the access to loans to get us through. It’s important to acknowledge that we are a profession of the privileged and, in many cases, for the privileged.

Today I’ve covered part of this discussion and I applaud Mr. Girard for sharing his story. It takes courage to expose one’s financial troubles. Mr. Girard highlights a problem that has been looming large for years. I am reminded of many meetings at the OBA when I was a member of the Executive back in 2007. Then-President Jamie Trimble (now Justice Trimble) deserves much of the credit for keeping us focused. (Actually, I could use some of Jamie’s focus for this post.) We produced a +100 page glossy book with proposals, charts and graphs on legal education in Ontario. And the issues still linger. In fact, they seem to be worse.


  1. Excellent Article. I teach p/t and one of the students in my ADR class will graduate with $160,000+ in student loans. So much for law school being accessible. Tuition should never have been deregulated.

  2. Come on, now, everyone! If the system wasn’t set up to keep down us Poors, we might have the time, energy and resources to try to level the playing field. I can already hear the monocles shattering on the marble tile.

    Will commission affidavits for food.

  3. David Collier-Brown

    I was one of the beneficiaries of the student loans system, and was able to attend the University of Windsor as an adult, something I could not do in my youth, and kick-started an enjoyable career in computer science with an interest in the law, courtesy of a brilliant residence-full of law students (hi, Peter!), roughly my own age.

    For a brief, shining moment, people without significant financial resources could attend university.

    Not so now. Especially not so for any of the graduate faculties, specifically including Law.

    IMHO, if we’re to have access to justice, our prospective lawyers also need access to income-contingent loans of adequate size, something I had and Mr. Girard does not.

  4. Thank you for the comments. I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback from friends and former classmates.

    David – I completely agree with you on the income-contingent loan option. These have been available at US law schools for a while. As I recall, Stanford has a good program. We looked at this option back in 2007 but the schools rejected it. In Canada, it doesn’t work because the schools don’t give the loans, the banks do. We would need to get the banks to sign on to this idea and, as far as they’re concerned, the status quo suits their interests.

    Another interesting side issue: Do Canadian bankruptcy laws apply to student loans? They didn’t 10 years ago. A friend of mine did undergrad at U of T, then an MA and then his LLB (now JD) – straight through. He had +$100,000 in student loans. He looked into declaring bankruptcy but it wouldn’t have helped. Is this still the case?

  5. I went through Osgoode in the mid-nineties. The tuition was reasonable then. Today the tuition is crazy, considering that Law has to be about the cheapest course to deliver. Unlike engineering or medicine, the only thing you need is a laptop and a printer and internet access. You could do it online from home or by correspondence! Yet Osgoode keeps hitting me up for money to ‘improve’ its infrastructure. It’s simply P.R., empire building, self importance and elitism. And P.R. seems to be the Deans’ main job. Nothing to do with legal education. That has to wait until your articles.

  6. Osgoode is offering a pilot income-contingent loan program: “As part of our commitment to promoting the financial accessibility of law school, Osgoode has designed an innovative income contingent loan program (ICLP) that provides recipients with bursary and loan funding to cover the entire cost of tuition.”