A friend on Facebook recently posted this article, which served as the inspiration for this blog post.
I had two working titles for this post, as seen above. I think I prefer the latter:
Law school tuition is too d#*n high.
I write from the perspective of someone who has recently finished law school. I do not write from the perspective of an administrator. I have no notion of budget cuts and balancing. I don’t know anything about governmental or private funding. I don’t know how much funding has to be allocated to research chairs or professor salaries or course lecturers. I don’t know much about student levies.
But I really don’t care.
All I know and all I care about is the fact that law school tuition is too d*&n high.
To me, that’s pretty much all that matters.
To be frank, that’s pretty much all that matters to a whole bunch of other students too. And since this is my blog, and I get to talk about whatever I want to talk about, however I want to talk about it, this is what I’m going to talk about (perhaps even in an informed and not emotionally-charged way. Maybe…).
Whether it’s $15 000 a year, $20 000 a year or almost $35 000 a year as the University of Toronto proposes, it’s still too d*&n high.
High law school tuition gets me incensed because it hits close to home. It directly affects people like me – racialized people, first-generation university graduates, people who are the first to go to professional school, people who do not have rich relatives to borrow from, people whose parents can’t pay for their education, and yet people who have the drive, ambition and intelligence to succeed but are potentially barred from the opportunity to do so because of financial challenges.
For those who are unaware, law school in Canada and the U.S. is 3 years long, with some exceptions (3.5 years long at McGill, and potentially 4 years long at UOttawa). How does one justify $34 600/year tuition, or $100 000 for a law degree?
There seems to be this pervasive, persistent, terribly wrong assumption that lawyers are rich and that the tuition they pay is commensurate with and reflective of the income that they will one day make. This couldn’t be any further from the truth. That “day” may not come for a very long time.
Yes, many lawyers do make six figures, but the great majority of lawyers don’t. In fact, many lawyers make as much as caretakers, plumbers or teachers. So no – don’t hike up our tuition fees because of some twisted notion of earning potential (key words here are “notion” and “potential”). Making big bucks is a possibility, but it’s definitely not a certainty given our economy.
I can’t tell you how many friends and colleagues I have who have finished their licensing requirements and who have been called to the bar, but find themselves unemployed.
It’s a hard market out there, and lawyers are not getting jobs as easily as you would think. Believe it or not, many lawyers have problems making ends meet too, notwithstanding the debt-load accrued from law school.
High law school tuition may also be prohibitive to people who already have a high debt load from previous studies or have bad credit or can’t find a co-signer. Not everyone can access credit. Not everyone will be able to access enough credit. This is unfortunate, because just because you have bad credit doesn’t mean you can’t be a good lawyer. Law schools should lower their tuition fees so at least these students will have a chance.
High law school tuition affects diversity. U of T Law is already not very racially diverse as it is. For instance, I remember that just a few years ago, the Black Law Students’ Association chapter at U of T was comprised of only one member. Higher tuition is prohibitive for many students (single-parents and immigrants, for example), but especially racialized students, many of whom come from middle-income and low-income families like myself. Hiking up tuition is the perfect way to ensure that law classes stay racially homogeneous, without the panoply of lived experiences and perspectives that make well-rounded, sensitive and informed lawyers. If that’s what U of T and other law faculties want, they are on the right path.
High law school tuition affects student debt, which in turn affects career choice. Much has already been written on how debt and the lack of money push many public-sector, community-minded aspiring lawyers into more lucrative, private sector jobs, causing a dearth of lawyers serving the public in social justice capacities.
A classmate of mine from McGill wrote the following on his Facebook wall in response to the aforementioned article:
“U of T Law [is not] accessible to talented and driven students from all backgrounds… As [the aforementioned] article shows, about a third of U of T law students come from households where combined annual parental income is $200,000 or greater; 65% of students have parents with a combined annual income of $100,000 or greater. If you’re wondering what the annual median family income in Canada is, it’s about $77,000 (http://www.statcan.gc.ca/…/sum-…/l01/cst01/famil108a-eng.htm).
“…[T]hose income figures are for two-parent families. If you come from a non-wealthy single-parent background… your chances of attending U of T Law are close to nil.
“Yes, in general Canadian law schools are not particularly socio-economically diverse (the upper middle class rules), but U of T is an extreme outlier. Why this is the case is not difficult to figure out: annual tuition of around $35,000 is prohibitive for far too many students (U of T just announced another increase). So there’s an element of self-selection bias in who chooses to apply and go to U of T law; students from more modest means, no matter how brilliant, are often deterred from applying by the obscene price-tag (not to mention the cost of living in TO). By significantly reducing competition for spots at U of T Law, this tuition barrier allows the (mostly Toronto/Montreal) elites to perpetuate themselves, in the process hampering social mobility at the top.”
If we continue to raise the tuition as it has, law school will soon turn into a place that only the rich can afford. Arguably, in some places, like U of T, it already is.
And if law school is something that only the rich can afford, law school becomes classist. Education becomes classist. They will produce lawyers and law professors who are classist. It can produce lawyers who charge exorbitant fees to their clients because of their personal debt and because they lack the consciousness and compassion to realize and understand that most people cannot afford their fees. It is more likely to produce law professors who can only teach and research from a limited perspective, having never experienced what it is to be hungry, or homeless, or on welfare.
High law school tuition will reduce the quality of lawyers that are produced (assuming that law schools actually produce lawyers – that’s another story). What makes a good lawyer is someone who understands human nature, someone who is compassionate, someone who can put themselves into the shoes of their client so that they can provide their client with fierce, efficient, effective and loyal advocacy. To be such a lawyer, it helps if one has had access to legal education and it helps if one was surrounded with people with varied stories and lived experiences stemming from their socioeconomic status.
Personally, I want a lawyer who understands social structures. I want a lawyer who understands socioeconomic realities. I don’t want to go to a lawyer who doesn’t understand poverty…a lawyer who has never been poor.
It’s enough that becoming a lawyer is already a cash grab steep financial investment as it is, what with LSAT prep courses, the LSAT itself, law school application fees, bar exam fees, bar school (if you are in Quebec), lawyer robes, continuing legal education/continuing professional development credits, annual licensing fees etc. And we are not talking about chump change here. God forbid you fail your bar exam like I did and many other students too. Each of these elements cost thousands of dollars (yes, even your robes can run you about $1000 when you add in your vest, shirt, lawyer tabs, shipping and handling and tax. The robe itself is around $500 before taxes).
And like my colleague above mentioned, there is a disincentive to apply when you know that you cannot afford the tuition and you fear debt like the plague (and rightly so).
And yet people still insist on hiking up tuition and are hard-pressed to find any other solution?
You see, I strongly believe that access to education is an access to justice issue.
By access to justice, I mean access to a legal system where you will not be exploited, where you have your side and your story heard (Audi alteram partem), where you are treated fairly and impartially, where your lawyer truly advocates on your behalf and where the costs for such service is commensurate with the service rendered and bears in mind the financial capacity of the client. Access means the ability and capacity to obtain such services.
I believe the definition of justice should not be “just us.” As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and thus, if only certain people can access the justice system, then we don’t have a justice system at all – we have a “just us” system.
Access to education is an access to justice issue because an education helps one better navigate the legal system.
Access to legal education is an access to justice issue because we need to produce lawyers who are reflective and representative of the society of which they are a product. We want lawyers who can relate to their clients. We want lawyers who look like their clients. We want lawyers who can understand their clients. We want insightful lawyers with a variety of experiences and socioeconomic backgrounds. We want lawyers who will, in much the same way that Plato advocates, return to the caves of their communities and render the services with which their education has equipped them. Only such lawyers can effectively render the services that our society needs. Without access to legal education, we cannot produce such lawyers.
With high fees and more barriers, you produce only a certain type of lawyer who can only serve as effective advocates for certain types of clients and not for the general populace. The quality of lawyering is diminished. People will not be getting the legal service that they deserve and that is their right.
“But they can take out a loan or a line of credit,” you say.
As is well known, loans and lines of credit must be repaid. Since many law graduates are unemployed or underemployed, or have trouble finding employment, such loans become a taxing burden in the first few years of practice as a new call. Arguably, we would not have had to take out so many loans and such a huge line of credit if the tuition wasn’t so darn high.
Debt is not the answer, and I marvel that we are content in creating a society that subsists on indebtedness.
I view going into debt for an education like this: Education is a door. Society presents us with this door, and encourages us to pass through it. It is necessary to pass through this door to better contribute to society, but, strangely enough, because of its placement, you can’t access the door. Instead of lowering the door so that you can reach it, or providing you with a footstool or a ladder, people would rather that you access the door by being shackled to the ball and chain of debt. The ball and chain will undoubtedly make it harder to go through the door, and you will carry its weight for some time after you’ve passed through, but at least you’ll have access to the door, they say. You’ll pay it off in no time, they say. It’s worth it, they say. Sure it may affect your ability to practice, but manacles are better than nothing right?
Personally, I don’t think that’s true accessibility. That’s slavery. You shouldn’t have to depend on indebtedness to get an education. Education should not be a debt sentence. But that’s just me.
I think the most equitable solution is to lower the door and provide ladders so that the door is in the reach of everyone.
My friend and human rights lawyer Anthony Morgan used to run a program at U of T called “See Yourself Here” for high school students and prospective law students, many of whom were racialized. The truth is a lot of students can’t see themselves in law school because they are blinded by the high tuition. Remove the barrier of tuition, and students may just “see themselves there.”
By raising the tuition, the law school silently sends the message that poor students need not apply, because, really, if they wanted people like me, they wouldn’t hike up the tuition. If they wanted me, they would do their best to attract and accommodate me. If they wanted people like me, they’d lower the tuition so that I can actually see myself there. Tuition serves as a barrier, and not an incentive.
Some people reading this might say, “But hey, didn’t you go to McGill?”
Yes, I did graduate from McGill’s Faculty of Law. However, financial considerations were a big part of why I applied to McGill as opposed to other institutions. I knew that even if I got into U of T or even Ottawa, I probably wouldn’t even be able to pay for it. At McGill, I earned two law degrees for a quarter of what I would have paid at U of T where I would have received just one.
I don’t think a student’s decision to attend a school should hinge on whether or not they will be able to foot the bill. A student’s decision to attend a certain law faculty should be based on the quality of education that they think they would receive and how that faculty will equip them to serve society. It should be based on the depth of one’s commitment and not the depth of one’s pockets.
I will say, however, that while I am very appreciative of Quebec’s support of their education system, I still paid more tuition than students who come from France simply because I am a Canadian citizen. Did you have to read that sentence twice? Does that make sense to you? Nor does it to me.
“Yes, but what about scholarships,” you say. “Didn’t you win thousands of dollars in scholarships?”
I did win thousands of dollars in scholarships. It should be noted, however, that most of those funds were used to finance my undergraduate education. While I am forever indebted and appreciative of the many wonderful organizations which have helped me fund my education, the scholarships I have won would never have been able to cover $100,000 in tuition plus living expenses if I had chosen to go to U of T. And I should mention that in terms of being a multiple scholarship winner, I am an exception, not the norm.
What I also find interesting is that when I was looking for scholarships for law school they were few and far between. There are many scholarships for students heading into an undergraduate degree. Graduate programs and doctorate programs in Canada are heavily funded. But when it came to locating scholarships for law school, there were not very many, save for the ones that the law faculty provided itself, which were hard to get since many other students were vying for them as well. There isn’t the same amount of scholarship support for law studies in Canada as there is for undergraduate and graduate studies.
But law schools in the States are expensive, and more expensive than law schools in Canada.
Yes, but the U.S. is also a place where one person can win a million dollars in scholarships. Such a figure is unheard of in Canada. They have much more funding available to students who wish to pursue tertiary education. And yet, don’t worry – students there are complaining of exorbitant tuition too, what with tales of people willing to return their law degree in exchange for debt forgiveness. The States also seem to have a variety of different funding structures. If Stanford can make tuition free for students, why can’t we in Canada at least try to cap tuition?
I’m not sure, but I’m willing to bet that the people making these decisions to hike up tuition are not people who have historically struggled to pay their tuition. The people who make these tuition decisions aren’t people who have had to cobble together some money in order to pay their rent, or people who pray that their debit or credit card will not read “NSF” or “Not Accepted” or “Declined” or are among those who stay up worrying if their cheque will bounce.
If they are, in fact, among those who have financially struggled, I wonder how they sleep at night, knowing that if they were students today, they would not be able to afford the tuition that their school requires and for which they are advocates and abettors.
So, in conclusion, I say: lower the d&*n tuition, because it is too d&%n high, and access to education is an access to justice issue. Law schools should be earnestly concerned with both.