Putting the Increase in UofO Law School Enrolment in (a little) Context

Thursday, December 6, 2012

By Professor David Wiseman, the joint co-ordinator of the Social Justice Caucus at the Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa.


Over the past year, as debate over the future of articling and lawyer licensing in Ontario has raged, attention has repeatedly been drawn to increases in enrolment at the UofO Faculty of Law.  For the most part, the increase in enrolment is cited in order to explicitly or implicitly admonishUofO for having significantly contributed to the so-called articling crisis.  This has recently prompted an online intervention from my Dean at UofO, Bruce Feldthusen, and a corresponding barrage of critical online comments.  The basic statistic cited is that UofO enrolment increased by 126% over the 15 years or so from 1997 to 2011.  There is clearly a feeling that this was done too unilaterally and without adequate consideration for the impact on the profession as a whole.  Since law firms were not able or willing to hire all of this increased number of graduates, the increase in enrolment, so the argument goes, is unjustifiable.  Sometimes this becomes an argument that UofO should cut back its enrolment; other times it just seems to be part of a blame-game.  As someone concerned as much about our access to justice crisis as about our articling crisis – and trying to find ways to address both at the same time – I think this discussion is getting us off-track.  But even if it isn’t off-track exactly, the admonishments seem pretty half-baked, especially when we think about this from an access to justice perspective.  Let me explain.

I am a new-ish prof. at UofO and so don't know the context or details of the relevant decisions and so can't say to what extent the admonishments arejustified.  But if they are justified, I don’t think it can simply be because of the combination of the bare facts being cited.  Even if we ignore the other sources of increases in demand for articling positions over the relevant period (from foreign-trained lawyers and grads of foreign law schools), relying on one statistic of an enrolment increase, combined with the fact that the increased number of graduates are not being fully absorbed by the market, seems to me to be a bit too acontextual, even if all we are going to consider is statistics.  In other words, shouldn't we at least be trying to put these enrolment statistics in statistical context ...?  If you think so too, read on. (With apologies if these numbers have already been explored and I was asleep at my twitter!)

I confess to not being good at math, or statistics (did I mention I’m a lawyer …), but perhaps others will agree that, if the underlying question is whether there was any justification to increase law school enrolment, two factors to consider might be increases in the general population of Ontario and in university enrolment more generally.  Increases in general population growth might suggest that the general demand for legal services would also be increasing, in absolute terms, and growth in general university enrolment might suggest that demand for law school places might also increase in absolute terms.  If law school enrolment remained absolutely constant, it would soon be relatively out of whack, from both directions.  So, what are those statistics?

Well, as people are falling over themselves to point out, law school enrolment increased by 279 places from 1997 to 2012, which was about a 25% growth (and UofO accounted for upwards of 70% of that).  Over the same period, Ontario's population grew from around 11 million to around 13.5 million, an increase of around 22%.  Meanwhile, general university enrolment in Canada had already grown over 20% between 1997 and 2003 and has kept growing since (with the biggest growth in Ontario, although at this moment I can't locate the exact numbers).

So, over 20% growth rate in all categories.  Without wanting to be too provocative, if this means that the relativities are pretty much being preserved, perhaps this suggests that the question ought not to be 'why did UofO do this?' but, rather, 'why didn't anyone else?'

And before someone (re-)says that the reason not to do it was that the market wasn't willing to hire the extra graduates -- sorry, I don't find that persuasive ... as our knowledge of unmet legal needs and lack of access to justice shows, demand for legal services has long out-stripped the capacity or willingness of the market for legal services.  Of course, public and charitable programs like legal aid and pro bono lawyering have also proven inadequate to meet the legal needs of those who don’t have the money to afford a lawyer, but the very existence of these programs shows that we have never equated the need for legal services with the scope of the legal services market.  It seems to me that there is more than enough unmet need for legal services to absorb the increased numbers of law school graduates.  The challenge lies in persuading governments and the legal profession to find a way to connect the supply to the demand. 

Designed by Rachel Gold.