Canada, Law Schools, Rankings, Student Loans

The View From Up North: Law School Grifting

A prominent Canadian magazine, Maclean’s, ranks our Canadian law schools every year. Here are the categories it uses:

1. Trees per campus acre (15%)
2. Square footage of the law library (30%)
3. Number of left-handed professors (20%)
4. Proximity to Toronto (40%)
5. Supreme Court of Canada clerkships (2%)

Some call Maclean’s methodology suspect. But my law school, Queen’s, ranks third in the country, so who am I to argue? It’s not my fault Queen’s has a huge law library on a leafy campus just up the highway from Toronto in a region with the highest concentration of left-handed people in the country. We didn’t do so well on SCC clerks, but I am told that Queen’s is working diligently to improve in that area.

Anyway, Maclean’s says these are the top 5 law schools in Canada:

1. University of Toronto
2. McGill University
3. Queen’s University
3. Osgoode Hall
5. University of British Columbia

Here’s the raison d’etre of today’s post. Can you take a guess at tuition for each of these fine academic institutions?

University of Toronto’s tuition is approximately $28k for the academic year. That’s right, our most respected law school costs under thirty grand.

It gets better:

Osgoode: approximately $22k

Queen’s: approximately $17k

UBC: approximately $11k

Notice a pattern here?

Now, the kicker: McGill costs approximately $4k per year.

Let’s meditate on that for a moment.

Kids born in Quebec, assuming they achieve the grades and ace the LSAT, can attend the second-best law school in Canada for the price of an all-inclusive vacation to a five-star resort in the Dominican Republic (double occupancy, gratuities not included).

Another noted law school ranker, QS, ranks McGill as the 33rd-best law school in the world. I didn’t review the QS methodology, but I’m sure it’s as valid as MacLean’s.

Of course, my gracious host, Above the Law, also issues law school rankings (using the most sophisticated and well-thought-out methodology of all rankers). Here are four law schools that did not make ATL’s Top 50 (and their approximate tuition and fees):

Barry University, where Dr. Shaquille O’Neal paid for obtained his Ph.D. ($34k), The John Marshall Law School ($44k), Whittier College ($41k) and, my favourite, Florida Coastal School of Law ($41K).

McGill: $4k per year. Florida Coastal $41k per year. University of Toronto: $28k. Whittier College: $41k.

It boggles a Canadian lawyer’s mind.

How did the American system get so out of whack? What research do undergrads do before applying to any law school outside the Top 50? Proximity to beaches?

I loved law school. I loved what I learned in law school. My law degree has a great deal of value just because of the experience. But, boots back on the ground for a minute. Very few people can afford law school just for the education. For most of us, it has to lead to gainful legal employment and, by that, I mean employment that requires you to pass a bar.

Lawyers in Canada have been complaining about the sky-high cost of law school tuition for years. To my Canadian brothers and sisters — shut up. We’ve got it good.

And to my American brothers and sisters, looking from the outside, your system looks bad. I know, I’m a Canadian, so I should mind my own business. But, come on, the word “scam” comes to mind.

I see some law schools are cutting tuition in an effort to maintain enrollment. I’m sorry, but a free market solution to this problem will not work. It is not sufficient to say that if schools overprice themselves for the value provided (i.e., the ability to get a respectable law job) then students will stop applying to them.

Why? Because it hasn’t worked to date. It’s not like this problem cropped up for the first time in 2013.

How about this Nameless Law School? It is not in ATL’s Top 50. It charges about $40,000 per year in tuition. Its website reports that for 2013 only 33% of its graduates obtained employment that required bar passage. It doesn’t expand on this, but I bet nobody got a $160k starting salary.

The website also notes that 40% of 2013 grads are completely unemployed.

THAT’S ON THE WEBSITE for all future applicants to view before applying.

Yet 200 people accept admissions to this school every year. And pay $40,000 in tuition.

We put warnings on cigarette packages. How about this on law school websites:


Do we need to get that blunt with students to force them to look at the economics of law school more closely? It probably wouldn’t do any good. Just like people continue to smoke, students will continue to enroll at Nameless Law School.

Optimistic smokers say, “Cancer won’t happen to me. I got good genes.” Optimistic law students say, “Unemployment won’t happen to me. I got brains.”

It’s American Idol Syndrome. Definition: A deluded belief that one is a superstar waiting to be discovered despite abundant evidence of mediocrity.

Deluded parents take their talentless kids to audition in front of Randy, Simon and Paula (yeah, I’m not current, I know) and break down in tears when Simon slices their kids apart. “That awful Simon, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about!”

Those parents, despite ear-shredding evidence to the contrary, truly believe their children can sing.

Same with law school. Parents call the C+ average and the 148 LSAT a fluke. Little Tony is brilliant. He just needs a chance. We’ll send him to Nameless Law School, where he will rise above his peers and take Biglaw by storm.

American Idol Syndrome.

That seems to be the only way to explain why students apply to Nameless Law School year after year.

American Idol Syndrome is fun when it only bruises egos. It’s not so fun when Little Tony leaves law school with no job and six figures worth of debt.

That’s the View from Up North. See you next week.

P.S. You should see the Queen’s campus in fall. The colours! It’s spectacular.

Steve Dykstra is a Canadian-trained lawyer and legal recruiter. He is the President of Keybridge Legal Recruiting, a boutique recruitment firm that places lawyers in law firms and in-house roles throughout North America. You can contact Steve at You can also read his blog at, follow him on Twitter (@IMRecruitR), or connect on LinkedIn (

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