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The social cost of high tuition

Why we need lower law school fees

Tuition fees concept

If we really care about access to justice, we need to reduce law school tuition. That’s it. That’s the tweet.

It’s not complicated. Law school is expensive, particularly in Ontario. One estimate put the most expensive Canadian law school (the University of Toronto) at $176,725 for three years of tuition and cost of living, and the median law school tuition and cost of living in Ontario at nearly $125,000. To be fair, law school tuition in the rest of Canada tends to be lower than in Ontario, especially in Quebec. But when the average annual cost of tuition alone across Canadian common law programs is $17,000, the law school tuition debate should not be limited to Ontario. And high law school tuition, in turn, constructs two incentive loops: deterrence and direction. Lower-income candidates are systematically deterred from applying, and all graduates are systematically directed towards summer and articling positions with higher incomes. These incentive loops harm access to justice. They reduce the number of lawyers who have personal experience with income inequality, and they erect barriers for any lawyer who wants to promote economic and social justice. In other words, they make the legal profession less empathetic, and sympathetic, to class inequality.

These incentive loops do not tell the whole story of how law schools can systematically undermine access to justice. Of course, law schools are inundated with countless “wine-and-dine” events promoting commercial practice and relatively scarce events promoting public, criminal, and poverty law. And, of course, law schools love placing graduates at elite firms to build their prestige and donor base. But, even without these considerations, the simple fact is that exorbitant law school fees are driving law students disproportionately towards private law and urban areas and against public law and rural areas. Such fees, therefore, run counter to those schools’ stated missions of promoting access to justice. We all know it’s happening. And yet, year after year, law school fees continue to rise.

I have heard two main responses to this concern. Neither persuades.

First, some claim that high student fees logically follow from high lawyer salaries. At first glance, apprehension about straining the public purse to give future lawyers more money is understandable. But the high salary that some — not all — lawyers eventually earn reflects the problem, not the solution. Those high salaries exist, in part, because many law students graduate with significant debt. If law schools were affordable, then more law students could choose a sustainable career based on interest, not income. In any event, high salaries are irrelevant to those lawyers who forego corporate practice for areas of law that serve disadvantaged communities (and who, because of their debt burden, must offer those services for more than they would ideally want to).

Second, some claim that a better solution involves reliance on more bursaries, not less tuition. I can see the appeal to this view. Given that many law students come from privileged backgrounds, why universally subsidize tuition? But a bursary-based solution to excessive law school fees is only workable if bursaries are offered in amounts commensurate with stratospheric tuition — not, for example, an average $20,000 bursary marginally offsetting three years costing $147,973 (from the same estimate linked above). And, even if we drastically increased bursaries, they cannot fully replace low tuition. Bursaries are often less predictable. And they cannot fully counteract the daunting psychological barrier that high tuition poses for lower-income applicants considering law school. Telling someone that they “may qualify for enough discretionary bursaries to make law school affordable” can’t balance a student budget the same way lower tuition can.

High law school tuition is, therefore, a means through which our legal system reifies societal inequality. Lawyers are powerful. They are uniquely licensed to interpret, challenge, and apply our laws. And limiting who can become a lawyer, and the choices practically available to them, heavily influences the type, cost, and location of legal services provided in our country. It makes the barriers to accessing justice — “the greatest challenge to the rule of law in Canada today” — only greater.

I doubt the current proportion of law students pursuing corporate practice — and particularly, the current proportion of law students with strong academic records pursuing corporate practice — would confess that their greatest passion is corporate law. Yet that is where they end up practicing. Indeed, if law schools took mandatory anonymous surveys throughout law school about the legal careers students initially, and ultimately, pursue, the evolution of those interests during law school’s three years would be, I suspect, notable. It is unfortunate that many students are pressured into less fulfilling careers. But it is tragic that so many people in desperate need of legal services cannot obtain them.

Lawyers often joke that they couldn’t afford themselves — it’s not funny, it’s embarrassing. We are numb to a broken system that is designed to serve the few when we all know it is meant to serve the many. And law schools are, to varying degrees and non-exclusively, complicit in that design.

Decrease law school tuition. Increase access to justice.