I discussed in a past column that one of Canada’s finest law schools, McGill, costs about $4,000 per year. Isn’t that crazy? I bet many Biglaw partners have spent more than $4k on a single client lunch (tip included).

McGill’s microscopic tuition highlights the two main differences between U.S. law schools and Canadian law schools: first, almost all Canadian schools are waaaaaayyyyyyyyy cheaper than their U.S. counterparts. Second, the top students from all our law schools can get Biglaw jobs in Canada. We have only about twenty law schools, but each of them regularly place students with big firms across the country.

There is an implication for Canadian schools as a result: our schools don’t really need to differentiate themselves from their competitors. They can get by with similar course offerings and limited specializations.

The U.S. law school universe is vastly different….

There is so much competition for talent that U.S. law schools must look at themselves very much as a business. They must seek a competitive edge over similar law schools in order to attract the students they want to attract.

Take a step back. We all know law schools target very specific students. Harvard has a special trash can for students who apply to it with a 154 LSAT. It’s called the “They’re Selling Ice Skates in Hell” trash can. But what happens if Harvard suddenly finds itself without enough qualified applicants to maintain its enrollment targets? Two obvious things can happen: (1) Harvard can reduce the size of its 1L class to match the number of qualified candidates; or (2) Harvard can lower its standards.

I just heard everyone say, right, that ain’t gonna happen. If the competition for students you want gets tougher, and you won’t lower your standards to broaden the applicant pool, isn’t class reduction your only choice?

Maybe not.

What about niching? What about offering students something valuable that other law school who are trying to mow the same grass don’t have? That’s what private businesses do.

Arizona State, for example, recently created a North American Law Degree. What’s that, you ask? It’s designed to prepare students who take the program to practice in both Canada and the United States. I hear some of you mockingly say, why would anybody want to practice in Canada? All I can say is you gave the world Party Down South and American Hoggers and people still drop onto your shores looking for work. So be gentle with thy mocking tone.

The point isn’t that Arizona State is training attorneys to practice in both Canada and the United States. The point is the college has spotted a niche. It is acting like a business and building a brand. You want proof it’s thinking like a business? It trademarked the name, “North American Law Degree.” You don’t bother trademarking something unless you want to protect it against competitors. Trademarking is a business decision.

Arizona State has a fine reputation. Yale is a Lamborghini, Duke is the ultra-cool Ferrari from Magnum P.I., and Arizona State is a Lexus. But when strong undergrads apply to various laws schools what distinguishes Arizona State from University of Wisconsin (a BMW) or Indiana U. (a Mercedes)? They are all fine law schools competing for many of the same students.

Well, Arizona State can say we have the North American Law Degree Program. This program can, ambitious undergrad student, help set you up to practice in both Canada and the United States.

Who might be attracted to that program? Many Canadians winter in Arizona and have strong ties and affections for the area. Maybe they think it would be fun for their kids or grandkids to study in Arizona. Maybe it appeals to Canadian students who want to benefit from a program that will open up tremendous opportunities on both sides of the border.

Perhaps it appeals to an American student who either wants to work in Canada or wants to work in New York at a large firm that does a lot of cross-border M&A and securities work. A hypothetical student, let’s call her Jill, graduates from the North American Law Degree Program with top grades and sells herself as having a substantive Canadian and American legal background. Jill is competing with students from Indiana U. and Wisconsin who are also looking for that $160,000 starting salary. As a graduate of the Arizona State program, she may be seen as having a competitive advantage with certain firms that focus on cross-border transactions. That can be her calling card.

Perhaps the program won’t work. Maybe Arizona State will pull it after a couple of years. That’s a risk business people take all the time. But good businesses don’t stop trying. They don’t stop looking for an edge.

Again, it’s a tough world for law graduates. Any way a law school can distinguish its program from its closest competitors should create a real benefit for attracting the students it wants. And, anytime a school can provide its students with a positive way to distinguish themselves from peers who are seeking the same jobs, it provides tremendous value.

Arizona State might never be a Bentley. But, by acting like entrepreneurs and looking to create value for its customers — that’s right, customers — it can rise to the top of the Lexus/BMW/Mercedes category.

Without differentiating itself, it might fall flat. Maybe it wants 150 1L’s but can only attract 145 without lowering its standards. The next year it only attracts 143. Now the school faces a dilemma. Perhaps the North American Law Degree Program will only attract ten additional students. What if there are ten Canadians who would have attended the University of Toronto but now make their way to Tempe because they can obtain a J.D. at a very good law school and graduate with options to practice in both Canada and the United States? In a hyper-competitive world, ten students might be the difference between meeting your admission goals and needing to drop your standards to attract a full enrollment.

Customers have money to spend; they have abundant similar options to choose from. In a universe that is getting smaller and smaller, schools can no longer count on being the best in state as a competitive advantage. Students are mobile and more than willing to hop on an airplane to attend the law school that tickles their toes. The most important questions is why should they choose you?

The answer is, because you provide more perceived value for the staggering tuition than your immediate competitors.

The status quo is death by slow poison. We should applaud law schools who focus on their customers and strive to provide offerings that are unique, interesting and, ultimately, career-enhancing.

I recognize that some schools already get this concept. They provide nationally lauded clinical programs or exceptional environmental law specialities. It’s part of their brand. They sell these specialities to their prospective customers.

I also recognize that other law schools, like Yale, are inherently differentiated and don’t really need to provide much more than a dude with a pipe at the front of the class to snare the top of the gene pool.

But, the rest of the law schools need to put on their business hats. They should be striving to create something positive, something interesting, something unique, that grabs students’ attention and gives them a reason to pick their program over their closest rivals.

That’s your View From Up North. Have a great week.

Earlier: The View From Up North: Law School Grifting


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 steve@keybridgerecruiting.com. You can also read his blog at stevendykstra.wordpress.com, follow him on Twitter (@IMRecruitR), or connect on LinkedIn (ca.linkedin.com/in/stevedykstra/).


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