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David Baker’s Comments on U of T Law School Tuition

  • February 14, 2017
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After years of trying to work for change within the system, I have decided that it is time to speak up.

While other law schools and professional faculties are far from blameless, it was U of T Law that broke the mould and took the leap towards charging what the market would bear. U of T Law leapt into the lead and moves incrementally further ahead with every year. It was U of T Law that triggered the unjustifiable faculty wage hyperinflation across all law schools made possible by the massive tuition increases. [see Sunshine List data in 2015 memo]. The victims are by no means confined to U of T Law students, but it is hard to blame the other schools for just trying to keep pace.

The President of the University in 1997 was Rob Pritchard and the Law School Dean was Ron Daniels. I admire both of them and consider them to be friendly acquaintances. On this issue I disagreed with them at the time, and continue to disagree with them now. Rob in particular is most articulate and forceful in defence of the move. They brought an American private market approach to becoming a lawyer, even though we have a publicly subsidized system and a history of treating post-secondary education as a public good comparable in many respects to healthcare. A law degree is worth a lot when it is put out to bid, as U of T Law has proven. Unlike doctors, incomes amongst lawyers are widely variable, but that does not deter many from taking the risk that they will be able to grab the brass ring of a big downtown firm income.

In addition to preventing some otherwise qualified persons from becoming lawyers, my concerns are that some heavily indebted grads want to practice law in the public interest but cannot afford to do so, and even more tragically that some “crash and burn” for lack of a high paying job, taking their [debt co-signing] parents’ retirement plans down with them.

With our excellent student loan program in this country there is no reason why students should be deterred from maximizing their talents through an education. The exception is professional faculties in Ontario, and particularly law schools. Students in these schools must accumulate massive amounts of private debt on top of maxing out their public student loans.

I had initially thought to wait and see if Ontario would address this with its new free tuition policy for low income students, however when I learned that the School had silenced valedictorians and would for the first time prevent them from delivering their annual tuition critique to faculty and families, I felt obliged to address the issue now, in hopes the government’s new policy would for the first time address this issue.

I have tried for 2 years to persuade the Law School to self-regulate and protect students from modest income families from the assumption of crippling levels of debt, or forego pursuing a law school education altogether. I, as a representative of the Class of ’75 Fundraising Committee, invited a student who had accumulated $200,000 in debt to speak to my class reunion. My class mates were staggered and left speechless, but gradually those with the largest incomes from the biggest firms [and therefore the most fundraising influence] have indicated an unwillingness to use their influence with the School to bring about change. The reason is not hard to find. It is in their firm’s interest to have a large pool of law graduates who are desperate to achieve the incomes that only the largest firms with the wealthiest clients can provide.

Similarly, faculty are well aware of the impact of their $350,000 plus salaries [supplemented by unlimited research incomes, encouraged by reduced teaching responsibilities]. Many are deeply troubled by the harm this is doing to their students. Nevertheless few have been willing to speak up and even those few have slowly been silenced. As with lawyers in large firms, faculty have a vested interest in the new normal. They should not be expected to go on strike in order to force a reduction in their salaries, increases in their teaching loads or restrictions on their entrepreneurial opportunities.

I invited Dean Ed Iacobucci to my home for a dinner with several of my classmates. We mapped out all the facts set out in the papers attached below, pulling no punches, and requested that he lead a process of change. He acknowledged many of the problems identified, and, while sympathetic and willing to make minor incremental changes, felt constrained by collective agreements entered by his predecessors which he maintained left little or no room for change.

I have not had access to the information that would allow me to assess the extent [that] the building of the palatial new law building has contributed to the problem.

That basically leaves the students. In order to demonstrate their lingering concern, a group of approximately 50 recent graduates, each of whom graduated with more than $100,000 in debt, jointly signed a letter calling on the Dean to engage in “robust data collection”. Their minimal request, intended to allow critical discussion of the dimensions of the problem did not receive a response.

Those still in the pipeline continue to protest, but student politics receive little attention, and there is a widespread belief that public student loans have addressed all basic access problems. Thus while law students continue to complain, the myth that they will all be living in Rosedale before long, means they are unlikely to arouse public sympathy.

I am attaching a Backgounder (link) I wrote in November 2015, a Discussion Paper (link) I circulated amongst classmates in January 2016, and a Fact Sheet (link) prepared by a faculty member who worked for a period with students.

I hope this will be of assistance to anyone making an effort to enhance merit based access to the practice of law.

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