It seems like the number of applications to American law schools is finally going down. Maybe that number would go down even further if prospective American law students knew more about the magical land up north.

Yes, we’re talking about Canada. America’s homely cousin might not be as hot, but she’s got a great personality and is nice and funny. Having already figured out how to provide health care to all of its citizens, Canada seems to have also come up with a system of legal education that doesn’t hobble its young lawyers before they even start practice.

Canada’s key to success seems to be actually regulating its law schools and assuring a basic level of high quality across the board. There are only 20 law schools in Canada, which means that (gasp) not everybody who wants to go can go. Yet despite demand, Canadian law schools also cost less than their American counterparts.

It appears that much like their health care system, not every Canadian gets exactly what they want precisely when they want it. But their magical ability to behave like adults when faced with delayed gratification somehow makes things better for everybody. Chant “U.S.A., U.S.A.,” all the way to debtor’s prison if you like, but clearly the Canadians are doing something right — and maybe we could learn from them here in the States…

An article in the McGill Tribune neatly explains how Canada has avoided some of the worst of the legal recession that we’ve experienced here in America:

Much of what ails the American market has been preempted in Canada by an entirely distinct system in which there are both fewer schools and less divergence in terms of academic quality.

“The situation’s a lot better in Canada because we have far fewer law schools,” says Leeann Beggs, director of career services in the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “The likelihood that you’re going to get into your profession is very good.”

While there are almost 200 American law schools, there are only 20 in Canada, all of which are highly competitive and prestigious. Because they are essentially “all tier one schools,” Beggs says, it is very difficult to be admitted, but students can also be assured they will receive a high-quality legal education once they are there. Before passing the bar, law students are expected to article, or work and learn at a law firm in some sort of legal apprenticeship. Furthermore, there seems to be no sort of legal outsourcing being practised in Canada.

“It’s pretty tightly controlled who gets access to legal work here,” Beggs says.

What a crazy idea: limit the number of law schools, demand top-flight legal education from the ones that exist, make working with actual lawyers part of training, restrict access for offshore lawyers … PROFIT!

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, yes, Canada has a smaller population than the United States — so it’s not surprising that it has fewer law schools. But it also has fewer lawyers per capita, as noted by Maclean’s:

Canada also has a small supply of lawyers. Here, there’s about one lawyer or notary for every 421 people. In the U.S., it’s one lawyer for every 265 people.

And here’s a note for all the new law school deans who constantly spew unsubstantiated tripe about how the proliferation of new law schools leads to lawyers who can help underserved communities:

“In Canada, the debt load does not really require you to go work for firms who do the kind of legal practice you don’t want to do,” [said McGill law student Michael Bookman]. “Law students are not forced into that the way they are in the U.S.”

You’re saying that law students who are not drowning in a sea of debt will seek to avoid selling their souls to the employer who pays top dollar? Why weren’t we informed about this earlier? To the “Freaking Obvious Mobile,” we’ve got to warn the others!

The article goes on to point out that even though it is cheaper, cost is still a factor for Canadian law students, and the decision to go should not be made lightly. That seems like a self-evident and universal point, but it apparently needs repeating. So I’ll repeat it: Hey kids, think critically before you commit three years of your life to anything. If you’re going to go after your “Sputnik moment,” be aware that some of you will die in a fire because the doors don’t always open.

Why can’t we implement some aspects of the Canadian system here in the U.S.? Off the top of my head, here’s what’s holding us back:

  • The voracious appetite of colleges and universities for profits generated by their law schools, which can be used to cover budget gaps elsewhere.
  • “I’m not no Canadian. I’m ‘Merican. Screw them foreigners with their highfalutin ideas.”
  • They don’t call us a “litigious society” for nothing. Maybe we need those extra lawyers.
  • If liberal arts graduates can’t go to law school, they’ll end up using their soft degrees to sit around in coffee shops and plot the violent overthrow of our government.
  • Everybody makes money off of this system (except the actual law students), so why change it?

That last reason is the most insidious, but also the most intractable. Whenever one group consistently gets screwed, somebody’s making money from it. Right now, law schools, law professors, state governments, and banks all make money off the system as currently constructed. Law firms make tons of money from having a nearly limitless supply of would-be lawyers to draw on (or use to scare current employees with). And, like the lottery, the system works out for enough law graduates to keep people buying tickets. The only people really hurt are the “unlucky” law students — and maybe, eventually, federal taxpayers.

If and when that bill comes due and the whole educational bubble bursts, I might just move to Canada. They seem to have things pretty well figured out up there, and thanks to advances in global warming, hopefully the country will be balmy and tropical soon enough.

A Sign of the Recovery? Law School Applications Fall [Economix]
Law School in Canada vs. USA [McGill Tribune]


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