Why the Time is Right for a Part-Time JD Program

One of the most challenging issues at Osgoode Hall Law School, as I suspect it is at virtually every law school in Canada, is financial accessibility for our JD program. Even with a significant financial aid program disbursing more than $3 million annually, tuition of approximately $23,000 at Osgoode (while not the most expensive law school in town) is a significant if not insurmountable barrier for many. Perhaps it’s time we consider whether an innovative part-time JD program can be part of overcoming this accessibility barrier.

There is not a mid-sized city in the U.S. (never mind a large city) without part-time law school programs, most as companions to full-time programs. Some, like Georgetown University in Washington D.C., are top-tier law schools, while many are drawn from schools with less prestigious reputations, leading to a stigma regarding the academic rigour of “night school.” The U.S. examples demonstrates some of the positive implications of accessibility but also  cautionary tales on programs whose students are isolated from the main currents of student life and intellectual engagement at law school.

I should add existing JD programs across Canada almost universally offer a part-time option for students admitted to the program – however, in all the programs of which I am aware (including the program at Osgoode) this is an option that is either an accommodation for students unable to pursue or continue full time study or an option which is structured in a way that few students are encouraged to pursue. I am aware of no law school in Canada that has designed a program with this option as the “norm” rather than the “exception,” apart from the graduate sphere (where Osgoode pioneered the professional LL.M. programs nearly 20 years ago).

Let me offer 5 reasons why in my view the time is right for this discussion in Canadian legal education.

1.       Accessibility

Accessibility is primarily a debate focused on getting students sufficient funds to engage in full-time study. That debate remains vitally important and part-time legal education is not a response to that broader issue. It does, however, respond to the reality that many potential students could not attend law school even with relief from high tuitions because they simply cannot afford to give up their jobs or family responsibilities. While empirical studies are hard to come by to substantiate the claim, the group shut out of law school is likely to include mature students, recent immigrants and students from communities underrepresented otherwise at Canadian law schools. Tuition for these programs will be more affordable as the cost is spread over a longer period of time,  but also opens up different and more innovative methods to fund legal education (for example, income contingent loan repayment schemes).

2.       Flex-Time

I believe we are ready to move beyond the false stigma that part-time legal education is “night school” and a second-tier legal education – people work on different schedules and in different contexts. There is no reason to assume that courses offered at times and in the settings that respond to student needs will be of lesser quality. The model I have in mind is less “part-time” and more “flex-time.” Some courses might be offered in evenings, while others could be run intensively over several weekends or two weeks over the summer. Others still might be on-line of a hybrid of digital and physical settings. Part-time legal education, as a result, tends to be more student-focused and empowers students in greater ways to direct their own legal education tailored to their lives and goals.

3.       Diversity

Part-time legal education may attract a more generationally diverse group of students, in addition to students from a broader range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Further (and relatedly) because of the broader experience on which these students draw, they may be more likely to bring a critical and reflective eye to the existing law and the status quo of the justice system.   

4.       Reform and Change

The time is ripe for part-time law program in part because of the broader flux in legal education. In just the past 5 years, Canada has witnessed two new law schools launch (Thompson Rivers, Lakehead) with a third on the way (Canada’s first private law school, Trinity Western), on top of significant increases in law school enrolment (at Ottawa and Queens) and new or expanded programs at existing Law Schools (such as Montreal’s expanded Common Law program). The Federation of Law Societies of Canada now has issued a robust accreditation model with an approved national set of competencies and a requirement that common law schools submit annual reports for evaluation and approval. The Law Society of Upper Canada has approved a novel, alternative stream to licensing known as the Law Practice Program (LPP) to be offered by Ryerson University and the University of Ottawa. While some are understandably anxious about adding more law graduates to the existing pool, I would argue the demonstrated reality of unmet legal needs suggests the issue is not whether we have too many lawyers or law students but rather how to link up the supply of new graduates with the unmet demands. In any event, part-time legal education could be established either through opening up new spots in JD programs, or shifting existing full-time spots.

5.       Innovation

Part-time legal education is not simply about the same programs taken at a different pace. It opens up the possibilities for a different kind of curriculum, different approaches to experiential education and problem solving, to the role of technology in legal education and to pedagogy more broadly. Different mixes of full-time and adjunct faculty may be a better fit for this educational setting. Finally, public interest work and community engagement play out differently as well when students share less time together in a physical bricks-and-mortar law school. Exploring legal education in a flex-time model can (and should) entail rethinking the means and ends of legal education itself.

There are of course many reasons beyond these 5 as to why part-time legal education may make sense and may meet both compelling individual student needs and a broader public interest need. And, rethinking how students pursue their law degree opens up space for us to think in new ways about other aspects of Law School. I can’t think of a better time for new approaches.