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Wealthy and wise: law school tuition fees
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Wealthy and Wise

Tuition fees are going through the roof at many law schools across Canada, raising fears that the practice of law will be available only to the independently wealthy. What can be done about the crippling cost of a legal education?

By Susan Goldberg

Rachel Furey is a third-year law student working at the Parkdale Community Legal Services Clinic in downtown Toronto. She provides legal services to low-income clients, many of whom are on social assistance and could not otherwise afford a lawyer. She likes the work, and would love the option of working at the Community Legal Clinic as a full-time lawyer.

But Furey is a student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, where the annual tuition fee for first-year students—$12,000, not including room, board and books—is the highest in Canada.

Furey, who will graduate with close to $40,000 in debt, says quite bluntly: "When we graduate, we can't afford to work here. And I think it's fair to say that you don't get as good service when you're being served by a student. We're still learning; we're not lawyers yet. The result is two- tiered justice."

The practice of law today is more diverse than ever before, thanks to a genuine effort by law schools to open their doors to groups that traditionally have not found a welcome there: women, racial minorites, mature students, those without independent means. In fact, women now comprise the majority of first-year law students.

It's a far cry from the "good old days," when the profession was too often the domain of the wealthy—an old boys' club of mostly white men for whom tuition fees were simply an investment in a lucrative and exclusive career. But skyrocketing tuition fees at Canadian law schools might signal a return to those days before long.

Out of sight

In the past decade, reports Statistics Canada, undergraduate tuition fees have risen an astonishing 126.2%, more than six times the 20.6% increase in inflation measured by the Consumer Price Index.

Law, dentistry, and medicine continue to be the most expensive programs. In some provinces, tuition fees at professional schools have doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled in recent years. And the numbers keep rising.

This fall, first-year law students across Canada will pay tuition fees of anywhere from a low of $1,668 (for Quebec residents who go to one of the province's five law schools) to a high of $12,000 at the University of Toronto. Generally, fees are highest in Ontario and Nova Scotia, and lowest in Quebec and British Columbia.

Add to that the costs of books, ancillary fees, food and housing, and single students can expect to pay anywhere from $10,000 to more than $25,000 a year to study for a law degree. When you factor in the expenses of Bar Admission Courses, plus debts from previous degrees, it's no surprise that some law graduates can expect to enter today's profession with staggering debt loads approaching $100,000.

Tuition increases have not been uniform, nor have all law schools seen hikes. While fees in some provinces, notably Nova Scotia, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta, has gone through the roof over the course of the past ten years, fees in British Columbia rose less than 30% during the same period, and have actually dropped 6.6% in the past five years.

Moreover, undergraduate tuition in Quebec has been frozen for the province's residents for the past five years, while Manitoba imposed a tuition freeze this year as well.

The increases stem in large part from dramatic cuts in federal funding transfers to the provinces for education, combined with the decision by some provincial governments to deregulate fees for professional schools. At the same time, the freezes in Quebec and B.C. have forced those provinces' schools to make do with tightened belts and creative fund-raising.

Rising fees jeopardize both accessibility to the profession and the ability of young lawyers to choose work based on their interests rather than their debt loads. Unless law schools and law societies, in tandem with the federal and provincial governments, act to address the impact of high tuition, the profession might undergo a dramatic and unwanted change.

Severe impact

High tuition fees, says Dr. William Easton, create barriers to education, and thus threaten the supply of professionals required to serve the needs of the Canadian public.

Easton is chair of the National Professional Associations Coalition on Tuition (NPACT), an affiliation of representatives from numerous professional associations — including the CBA — concerned about tuition fee increases.

Opponents of fee hikes worry that the increased costs will deter people, especially those who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, from even considering the law as a career possibility. Students from rural areas, recent immigrants, those without savings or credit histories, and students with children are among those most vulnerable to the effects of high fees.

"The costs are so onerous that law school doesn't become part of someone's realm of possibility," says Ummni Kahn, a recent Osgoode Hall graduate who worked at Parkdale Community Legal Services as part of the school's intensive program in poverty law. She's now articling with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. "When I talked to clients at Parkdale about going into law, they'd say, no, that's out of my league."

"Sticker shock" and debt aversion are the two main barriers that keep potential law students out of higher-priced institutions, says Vilko Zbogar, a recent U of T graduate now articling in Toronto with the progressive litigation firm Klippenstein and Associates. "Somebody who's shopping around for law schools will ask, 'What's the tuition?'"

If the price tag is too high and financial aid is unpredictable, says Zbogar, then a student for whom price is a key consideration is likely to look elsewhere. "For many," he says, "going into debt is not an option. Debt creates a huge barrier and a huge uncertainty.

"People who might want to go to law school to do public interest work will see how much it will cost, how much debt they will incur, and what the compensation is in that type of field. In the end, they'll conclude that it's not worth it. We're losing people before they even apply."

Damage to diversity

If the entrance to law school continues to narrow, diversity — not only in socio-economic terms, but also in cultural background, age, and gender — is threatened. If today's students don't benefit from a diversity of viewpoints in the classroom, tomorrow's lawyers will work within an increasingly narrow frame of reference. That has repercussions for all Canadians.

"The law is not self-evident," Khan points out. "It's all about interpretation. If you have everyone from the same class or cultural background, you're not going to have the same kind of diversity of critical outlook. We end up with a set of precedents based on a limited perspective."

High fees also create high stress levels for students. Deans and professors tend to agree that anxiety levels in the classroom have gone way up, as students take on increased debt loads, juggle more part-time work, and worry about finding a job that will pay enough to offset student loans.

"The pressure that students are feeling is just enormous," says Janet Mosher, an Osgoode Hall law professor and academic director of the Parkdale clinic. "A lot more students are trying to work part-time while they're at the clinic, and that is incredibly difficult to do. They already carry an enormous workload here, and the learning curve is very steep. I spend a lot of time talking to students who are completely stressed out."

Mosher also points to another effect of high fees: many students, she says, are "incredibly anxious" about getting jobs with large firms. "They think they're going to have large debts that they need to pay off," she explains. "I think that one of the significant worries is that the increased tuition fees are really affecting student career choices, at least in the short term."

Law students who might have been interested in a career at a poverty law clinic, or in social justice or the public service, worry that these kinds of jobs won't allow them to pay down the debt they've incurred. And a shortage of lawyers serving the public interest means that people who need lawyers might not be able to find or afford them.

The system also creates two classes of students: those who can afford the fees, and those who must take on crushing debt loads and extra work hours to get by. Students who take out more loans, and who take longer to pay them back, will end up paying more overall for their education, Zbogar points out.

As well, students who can focus their energies on studies rather than part-time work might have a better chance of succeeding in the ultra-competitive classroom. Success can translate into better jobs, with more money. And the cycle perpetuates itself.

"We certainly have students who really have a tough time making ends meet," says Albert Oosterhoff, Associate Dean (Academic) at the University of Western Ontario Law School in London, Ontario. "We've seen students gravitating towards the Bay Street sort of practice, and away from criminal law because it doesn't pay. A larger number of students have left to go the States," where salaries are higher.

"It's naïve to think that only students bear the impact of higher tuition fees," says Louis Charette, an associate at Lavery, De Billy in Montreal and chair of the CBA's Young Lawyers' Conference. "We lose a number of excellent candidates to other jurisdictions, because they're being offered more money up-front and can [pay off] their loans more quickly."

The schools' perspective

One impact of the brain drain, says Ronald Daniels, Dean of U of T law school, is that Canadian schools lose faculty, and therefore students, to the U.S. when they can't afford to pay American- style salaries. He justifies his school's substantial fee increases in part by its efforts to attract and retain a world-class faculty.

His law school aims to be among the top five North American institutions, says Daniels. To achieve that goal, it has implemented an aggressive hiring campaign, both to bring down its student-teacher ratio and to attract "the best and brightest" minds in the field.

"In order to retain outstanding faculty," says Daniels, "we're facing very intense competition from the States. We lost a very talented Canadian candidate this year to an American school. We feel very good that our starting salaries are $100,000. But our American competitors are able to offer $130,000 US. We need to be able to expose our students to people who are defining legal scholarship. That will be a cost pressure we face going forward."

And there's the rub: trying to achieve a balance between accessibility and resources. Student access to post-secondary education in B.C. has certainly improved as a result of the province's tuition freezes, says Andrew Petter, Acting Dean of Law at the University of Victoria.

"But it's a trade-off, and the downside is revenue for schools," he says. "There has to be adequate capital and teaching resources to provide a good legal education. But if students can't afford to be in the classroom, you're not much further ahead."

Brett Marleau is a third-year student at the University of British Columbia's law school in Vancouver. He expects to graduate with about $30,000 in debt, and is split on the issue of the province's tuition freeze.

"In one sense, I think there should be a low tuition rate so that everyone has access," he says. "At the same time, I think our quality of education has gone down because of the freeze and lack of resources. There are a lot more lecture-style courses, as opposed to small seminars. We're behind on technology: we have no Internet access, rooms with two electrical outlets for 40 students with laptop computers. We don't have the funds or scholarships to attract and finance new faculty members or graduate students." Indirectly, says Marleau, UBC has benefited from an influx of Ontario students who have come to the province in part to escape high tuition fees at home.

Overall, he's happy with the quality of his education. "My tuition now is reasonable," he says. "I think I'm getting a good bang for my buck, and I don't know what extra I'd be getting for $12,000. But you always wonder what more there could be if there was more money available to the school."

Where's the balance?

Deciding upon what is "reasonable" when it comes to tuition is difficult. At both ends of the cost spectrum, stakeholders argue over what law students should rightly expect to pay.

"A reasonable fee depends on the individual," says Zbogar. "The way to measure it is to set the level at a rate at which no one will be discouraged from pursuing the education of their choice. That may range from free to — some would say — higher than what it is now. I'd lean toward the lower end."

Daniels sees the University of Toronto's fees — which he expects will continue to rise substantially — as "very reasonable" in light of the current public funding context, the goals of the school, and its alumni support.

"There's a price tag for excellence," he says. "Given that we're in an environment where government's not going to pay it, we have to look at alumni and students. For students, this is a very, very wise investment for them to make.

"The value of intellectual capital, the benefits in terms of the kinds of career opportunities you can get are large, and exceed the costs that the students have to pay," he says. "But there is no dodging the question of who's going to pay for the excellence."

However, Victoria Meikle, Assistant Dean (Admissions and Placement) at McGill University's Faculty of Law, says law schools don't need to charge exorbitant fees to ensure excellent outcomes.

"There are many ways to evaluate excellence," says Meikle. "The Faculty of Law at McGill consistently places four or five students per year as clerks to Justices of the Supreme Court of Canada. Our graduates are successful both because they are excellent lawyers and because they are trained in both the civil and the common law."

Meikle also points out McGill's success in placing graduates with major American — as well as leading Montreal and Toronto —firms, placing the school on par with others that charge substantially higher fees.

Finding a solution

Is there a solution to the conundrums posed by tuition fee increases? Many, including NPACT, believe that federal and provincial governments must restore funding and provide additional money for post-secondary education.

The coalition wants to see "regulated and reasonable tuition fees," and to ensure that financial support for students is non-coercive, developed in advance of or at the same time as any tuition increases, in direct proportion to those increases, and at levels that meet the needs of students.

A partial fix lies in increased amounts of student financial aid. Ontario, for example, has mandated that 30% of fee increases be put towards student assistance; U of T's faculty of law has dedicated a full 30% of tuition revenue to that cause. While it's a start, some argue that the aid provided is a drop in the bucket in comparison to sky-high fees.

"It's kind of a silly process, where we raise fees and then make money available to counter them," Oosterhoff points out. "And you wonder when the spiral is going to end. The fee could be lower if the province opened its coffers."

In addition to the scholarships and bursaries currently available to students, Zbogar advocates a policy of deferred tuition, or "front-end debt relief," whereby students pay only a fraction of their tuition fees at the outset. They receive the rest of their tuition in the form of a bursary that reverts to a loan, or partial loan, should they begin to earn salaries above a certain threshold upon graduation. The advantage of this kind of program, he says, is that it eliminates sticker shock and debt aversion, and ensures that fees are set at a level that preserves accessibility.

Banks that have pulled out of student-loan programs also need to be held accountable, says Furey. And Khan suggests that law schools must become more flexible in allowing part-time students, or co-operative work-study programs. In general, she says, stakeholders need to rethink priorities when it comes to tuition fees, and find creative ways to overcome the barriers.

"There's a certain sense of defeat around the issue," says Khan, "this sense that it's out of our control, the law school can't sustain itself. That's a discourse that permeates a lot of things, like health care, this idea that we're spending too much and now we have to pay for it in the form of cutbacks or user fees. They don't think we have a choice. But we always have a choice."

"If it is correct that rising tuition fees have a negative impact upon equality of access or mobility, then they are an ethical issue for the profession," says Mosher. She points out that when former Supreme Court Justice Bertha Wilson chaired the task force on gender and equality in the legal profession, she made an important point about access to justice.

Wilson observed that if the legal profession couldn't regulate itself in terms of accessibility, then it didn't deserve to be a self-governing profession.

Susan Goldberg is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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