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Access to Justice Starts with Access to Legal Education │ Heather Donkers

26 Apr 2019 1:28 PM | Margie Mathews (Administrator)

I am the first person in my family to complete an undergraduate or a law degree.

I knew I wanted to go to law school and become a criminal lawyer after a personal experience in the criminal justice system. I was the victim of a sexual assault. The law suddenly became the vehicle through which I saw social problems. I wanted nothing more than to be a part of this small group of people who advocated for change.

But first, there was the cost of the LSAT books. Then, the one thousand dollars that it cost to apply to only four law schools. I was ultimately accepted early to Osgoode Hall Law School and cried on the phone to my parents in celebration. But before I could even hang up the phone, the reality of tuition sunk in. How could I possibly afford more than $26,000 per year for tuition? And what about books? And living expenses? Or even a suit for networking events? And the cost to write the licensing exams? Before I could get excited about what was the biggest accomplishment of my life so far, I counted myself out. There was no way I could accept my admission offer.

As it turns out, I am one of the few lucky ones. I was later accepted to Osgoode’s Income Contingent Loan Program, which meant that instead of paying my tuition upfront, I could pay it back after graduation, contingent on my income over ten years. I was one of only five students, in the entire province, who had access to this program (today, it supports seven students per year, but it is still the only program of its kind in the province). I will still graduate with upwards of $190,000 in educational debt and related expenses, owed to the school, the government, and to my bank.

Being the first in my family to go to law school has been a challenge, but I have truly given it my all, often working upwards of 18 hours per day between classes, several part-time jobs, research assistantships, mooting, and extensive extracurriculars. I knew that if I wanted any chance of being successful in a career where I had no connections, and if I wanted to be able to pay my debts back, I would have to work three times as hard. So that is what I have tried to do.

In my second year, I joined a student-run organization that was only a few years old at the time: The Law Students’ Society of Ontario, better known as the LSSO. At the end of that year, I was elected President, the role I still hold today. It is both a privilege and responsibility to be in this position.

. . .

Several years ago, the LSSO published a report on law students’ tuition, debt, and financial aid experiences. It had become slightly outdated, so I decided I would revamp it. Over the course of a few weeks last November, we collected 697 responses to our survey from all seven Ontario law schools, although some had higher response rates than others. I spent the next few months parsing through the data and creating what is now known as the Just or Bust report.

61.4% of survey respondents identified as women, 27.5% of respondents identified as a visible minority, 14.2% identified as LGBTQ, and 10.4% of participants identified as having a disability. The Canadian population has almost twice the proportion of Indigenous people as our sample, and students from rural Canada were also under-represented. Students whose parents’ highest level of education was less than a university degree are under-represented by 3 to 1.

We wanted to learn more about what motivated students to attend certain schools and how finances factored into those decisions, if at all. What we learned was that, for at least 40% of students at each school, tuition had an impact on their choice. Mature students, students from rural communities, Indigenous students, and first-generation university students were among the most likely groups to say that tuition impacted their choice of law school.

16.9% of those who said that tuition costs did not initially influence their choice of law school indicated that, when reflecting on their current finances, they would choose a different law school today. Students at Osgoode and the University of Toronto, where tuition is approximately $28,000 and $38,000 respectively, were most likely to indicate that they would choose a different law school given present finances.

Our results also told us that a student’s financial position may be determinative of whether they pursue a legal education to begin with. 52.9% of the students surveyed entered law school with no debt.

Of those who had debt prior to starting law school, most students owed between $10,000 and $40,000, which was owed primarily to government student loans. However, at higher pre-law debt levels, the balances of private sources of debt creeped upwards. This suggests to us that government student loan limits are insufficient, even for lower-cost academic programs.

And now for the most important numbers: total current debt load. When the survey was completed, winter tuition had not yet been paid at most law schools, so an average of $7,000-15,000 could be added to the numbers that I’m about to tell you.

For first year law students, the average debt load was $27,447. For 2L students, it was $57,409. And for students in their final year of law school, the average amount of debt was $83,746. These numbers are significantly higher than those found in the 2014 report. 5.5% of respondents expected to graduate with $140,000 or more in educational debt.

We tracked the data from various minority groups to see how their average debt levels varied compared to the general average per year of study. For the most part, the variance was little, with the exception of one group: first generation university students. For students whose parents did not complete post-secondary education, their average debt levels were more than $30,000 higher than their peers whose parents did have a post-secondary degree.

Finally, at law school graduation, over two-thirds of law students expected to have more than $50,000 in debt owing to financial institutions alone, compared to just over one-third in 2014. Almost two-thirds of the respondents expected to have over $20,000 in outstanding government loans, compared to only half of students in 2014. And 19.3% of students expected that it will take them more than 10 years to pay back their law school debts at current interest rates.

. . .

We also collected a number of student responses that outline the sheer impact that tuition and debt has had on their lives.

An overwhelming majority of students indicated that financing law school has been a significant source of stress for them during their degree.

A strong majority of students indicated that the cost of legal education impaired the representativeness of their classrooms. One student referenced the maximum allowable 5% tuition raise each year, saying: “If you want to make law entirely white and elitist, raising tuition by 5% every year is the way to go.”

Almost no students at any of the seven law schools agreed with the statement that their law school tuition is fairly priced. In fact, almost all students strongly disagreed with the statement.

. . .

I would bet that every Ontario lawyer, or at least most of them, want our legal profession to reflect the diversity of the communities that we serve. But that horizon is becoming increasingly elusive. While tuition is not the only determinant of whether students of diverse backgrounds fill law school seats, tuition of upwards of $30,000 per year is certainly among the barriers to ensuring that our profession is representative.

So too is tuition a barrier on access to justice. A large majority of survey respondents indicated that the cost of attending law school had impacted their career outcome objectives and caused them to deviate from their rationale for pursuing a law degree. Survey respondents spoke passionately about how they couldn’t possibly pursue a career in criminal law, family law, or with Legal Aid Ontario, because of their debt levels from law school. These are the areas of law in which we desperately need passionate law students who are willing to put in the hard work. And yet these students are being precluded from pursuing those careers simply because of the debt they carry. These students may also be less likely to offer pro bono services throughout their career or even a lower billable hour rate, due to the debts they have to pay off.

. . .

The reality of the situation is this: I wouldn’t be a law student had it not been for a funding program at Osgoode that allows me to pay my tuition back after I graduate. And I consider that a lucky break. So, for all of those students – all of those dedicated, creative, and diverse students – who don’t have $100,000 or more lying around… those students may never get an opportunity like the one I have now, because law school is financially out of reach for them. We lose important voices when we set tuition at unconscionable rates. Application costs, ancillary fees, and LSO licensing fees after graduation also contribute majorly to this problem.

I will leave you with a quote provided anonymously by one of our survey respondents, who said: “The LSO washes their hands of this as Not Their Problem, the university claims it’s Not Their Fault, and the Province refuses to return to adequate regulation of the cost of tuition. Student societies do not seem to hold much sway in the face of that level of indifference.”

But that is why I do this work. I am simply unwilling to accept the indifference. Even though my own debt situation won’t change, I will continue to advocate for tuition that rises only with the cost of inflation, better bursary and scholarship programs, and more transparency with respect to fees. I will continue showing up until something changes.


Author: Heather Donkers

Heather Donkers is a 2019 J.D. graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School. During law school, she was the President of the Law Students’ Society of Ontario and Student Section Chair of the Ontario Bar Association. Heather will be articling with the Crown Law Office Criminal in 2019-2020, and is an aspiring criminal lawyer. You can follow her on Twitter at @HeatherDonkers.

Young Women in Law (YWL) is a not for profit organization for women lawyers in their early stages of practice.

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