The inaugural class of Ontario’s first new law school in decades starts this fall in a province already teeming with new lawyers, but these students will be steered away from the big-city fray.
As law school enrolments continue to rise and more students studying law abroad return home, a growing number of graduates are scrambling for a comparatively stagnant number of articling positions — a 10-month work experience mandatory to become a lawyer.
But the so-called articling crisis never made its way as far north as Thunder Bay, Ont., where Lakehead University is set to unveil its new law school, said the new dean.
“If you talk to many of the law firms up here they’ll say, ‘Look, we’ve been trying to get an articling student for a number of years, we just can’t get the right one,” said Lee Stuesser, who has taught law for more than two decades.
“For years I’ve been saying to law students, ‘Look outside the big centres. There are jobs there.’ And you know what? They haven’t. So there is a shortage (of lawyers) here in the north.”
In March 2008 about six per cent of articling candidates couldn’t find a spot, according to the Law Society of Upper Canada. Three years later that number had risen to 12 per cent and by March 2012 approximately 15 per cent of potential lawyers were being left in the lurch.
The majority of articling spots are in Toronto, Ottawa, Windsor and London — which are all home to law schools — and just two per cent of the positions are in Ontario’s north, according to recent statistics from the law society.
An alternative to the current articling requirement meant to ease the crisis will be in place by the time Lakehead’s first class graduates, but law society treasurer Thomas Conway said he still hopes the school will help open up the north to new lawyers.
Regions with the fewest lawyers per capita are often also the ones with the fewest new lawyers, law society statistics show. Lakehead hopes to fill that void, often referred to as the “greying of the bar.”
The law school will direct its students toward practising in traditionally under-served northern and aboriginal communities, as well as small towns and cities across the country.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Goyce Kakegamic said he is “thrilled” with the new law school and hopes it prompts more First Nations people to become lawyers.
“Our people are kind of geographically bound,” he said, so having a law school close to home means they are more likely to attend.
The class of 55 students entering Lakehead’s law school this year includes seven people from First Nations communities. The law society reports that recently an average of 18 to 24 aboriginal lawyers have been called to the bar each year.
The process of establishing the new law school wasn’t without its hiccups. When the university replaced a full-credit aboriginal world views course with a half-credit one on aboriginal law, a group of Lakehead students protested with a sit-in.
Stuesser said he believes the outcry has been resolved by offering a course on native Canadian world views as well as a second course on aboriginal perspectives, in which students will work with aboriginal communities.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation supports the law school’s decision, Kakegamic said, but wishes there had been a bit more dialogue with the community about the content of the courses. He was pushing for a retreat with the new faculty and First Nations leaders.
Sebastian Murdoch-Gibson, 21, participated in the sit-in with a group of fellow indigenous learning students, saying he felt that the original course was necessary to understand how law, economics and politics are viewed through an aboriginal lens.
But ultimately their protest ended after the group presented its concerns to the university senate.
“We believe on principle that an angry mob shouldn’t dictate the curriculum of a university,” Murdoch-Gibson said.
Alison Morris, 23, who is set to be part of Lakehead’s first class, said the aboriginal aspect to the curriculum was one of the draws of the school.
“I can definitely see myself working in that field,” she said.
“There are a lot of issues with the aboriginal community and it’s really important for aboriginal lawyers to understand more about the aboriginal communities and it looks like that’s what the program is going to try to get us to do.”
Morris, who studied Canadian politics at the University of Victoria and Carleton University, grew up in small towns across Canada, spending most of her formative years in Revelstoke, B.C.
Lakehead focused its admissions on applicants from northern, rural and aboriginal communities, in the hopes that they will return to them to practice.
More than 50 per cent of the class is from northern Ontario, with another 20 to 25 per cent from smaller communities, mostly in Ontario, Stuesser said.
Lakehead tried for years to get provincial approval for a law school, and Stuesser said its niche is what made it stand out among other schools clamouring for one.
“I’ll be blunt, I think that many of those universities want a law school for the wrong reasons…They perceive it as being somewhat prestigious and secondly some of them see it as a means of good tuition revenue,” Stuesser said.
“Where I think Lakehead had an advantage is that we’re saying, ‘Look, we need a law school because we want to serve our community and our community needs lawyers. The aboriginal community needs aboriginally aware lawyers. The local, smaller centres need lawyers.'”
A 2011 study sponsored by the Law Society of Upper Canada looked at the numbers of lawyers per capita across Ontario and, perhaps unsurprisingly, found Toronto to be the most densely populated, with one lawyer for every 227 people.
The regions with the fewest lawyers per capita — including a region east of Ottawa, Chatham-Kent and Durham Region — have one lawyer for approximately 1,800 to 3,225 people.
Julia Tousaw, 24, another member of Lakehead’s inaugural class, is from Goderich, Ont., and would like to return to practice law there or in another small community. Tousaw had no hesitations joining an untested program.
“I see it as a blank slate and maybe it’s a great opportunity for us as 55 students to start a culture that is different and that you can’t find elsewhere.”