This post is a reflection on social justice lawyer and A2J co-founder, Yavar Hameed’s, run for LSUC Bencher. The experience and teachings will be further explored at the upcoming A2J Assembly on October 24th, which will feature robust discussions between LSUC benchers and A2J members. 

I ran as a bencher in the April 2015 Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) Bencher election to draw attention to the most pressing issue facing the future of law practice in Ontario. Alternative Business Structures (ABS)? The articling crisis? Nope. Not diversity within the profession? Guess again. Answer: student debt.

Surprised? Think about it. Currently, students in Ontario are paying between $15,000 and $30,000 per year in law school tuition—and the costs keep rising. This fundamental issue threatens the future of accessible legal education and access to the profession for everyone. When I graduated from law school in 1999, my cumulative fees for three years of law school were less than $15,000. The proportion of articling jobs compared to available articling candidates has decreased in recent years along with the dramatic increase of law school enrolment since 2009.

The September 2014 report of the Law Students’ Society of Ontario produced ground-breaking research, which revealed that 70% of law students in Ontario graduate with an average of over $70,000 in debt. For many students, their debt load exceeds $100,000. The implications of this debt load are staggering and cannot be overstated in terms of access to justice consequences. Higher debt loads mean less options for graduating lawyers, less flexibility to take on lower paying work for marginalized and low-income clients, and a perpetuation of higher costs to meet the bottom line of young professionals who need to survive.

Consider as well the fact that in Ontario, only 30% of law students are graduating debt free. This chilling statistic reveals a growing divide in the accessibility of legal education, where the majority of candidates must assume bourgeoning debt loads or simply decide not to go to law school. The situation is accentuated for First Nations students who receive very limited Band Funding if at all and, in many cases, face tremendous odds in finding other sources of funding. In this regard, we are costing out talent and sacrificing meritocracy. This issue cannot be cured by promoting diversity within the profession—it is a front-end barrier that makes the law a systemically inaccessible institution.

But this is not a debt crisis like that facing Greece or a crisis like the 2008 Wall Street collapse. This is a crisis of values where no one is willing to step in and few are even willing to recognize its existence. It is not a matter of whether or when the law tuition debt crisis will hit the profession—it already has.

So, one might ask—what can the Law Society do about this problem? Good question. Here are some action-oriented responses that the newly elected crop of Benchers need to think about:

  1. Defer call to the Bar fees for students who are graduating without secured employment.
  2. Reduce Bar admission examination fees to their pre-2014 level.
  3. Create new exemptions for LSUC membership fees for lawyers who wish to maintain practice status while attempting to find public interest jobs.
  4. Advocate directly with the Province for increased subsidies to law school education.
  5. Work directly with law schools to encourage more transitional accessibility measures such as income-contingent loan programs.
  6. Immediately create a requirement for the equivalent of 10 months practice-based education within the 3 year JD to phase out articling completely.
  7. Scrap the LPP in favour of positive and mandatory requirements for all articling students to be paid pending elimination of articling requirement.
  8. Use proceeds from LSUC continuing education to fund all costs and reduction of licensing fees.
  9. Create an LSUC Bencher subcommittee that allows student representation as subcommittee members to address issues directly affecting students and the future of the profession.
  10. Allow all students to vote for LSUC Benchers and make Bencher election voting mandatory for everyone.

At 34%, the 2015 Bencher election saw the lowest proportion of voter participation the last two decades. If we don’t take the future of our profession seriously, no one else will. The election is over, but the real work is only just beginning. This list of demands will not disappear, nor will the present crisis of the profession be miraculously cured by convening a new task force or focusing on ABS. Students and practitioners across this province are currently mobilizing to respond to the current Debt Crisis and we intend to make our voices heard.

 

Yavar Hameed is an Ottawa based lawyer focusing on the advocacy of human rights in several key areas including: administrative law, general civil litigation, criminal law and labour and employment law.

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