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Memorial University senate approves law school proposal

Law school plan moves to board for sign-off
|Written By Anita Balakrishnan
Memorial University senate approves law school proposal
Noreen Golfman says the current law school proposal assumes no funding from the province.

Memorial University’s senate has approved a proposal for a faculty of law, moving Atlantic Canada’s largest university a step closer to establishing a law school in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The law school could provide an influx of lawyers into areas of the province that currently rotate lawyers from town to town as infrequently as twice per month, the university said in an August 2018 proposal, which assumes no provincial funding will be provided.

“It is time for the legal profession and the judiciary to cease to be, from a foundational education point of view, principally a satellite of the law schools in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick,” the proposal said, citing support letters it received from the community. “The Province of Newfoundland and Labrador desperately needs more lawyers. You only have to look to rural Newfoundland and Labrador to see the appalling absence of lawyers.”

Memorial University’s proposal, in the works since 2013, would be Canada’s 24th law school, following the approval of new law schools at Lakehead University and Thompson Rivers University, according to statistics from the Council of Canadian Law Deans. Memorial University has already explored the idea of a law school on at least two occasions in the past, the proposal said.

“It has been a long time gestating, but we took pauses along the way,” says Noreen Golfman, provost and vice president (academic) of Memorial University. “So it’s not like it has been a continuous struggle or anything. It’s been in bursts of enthusiasm. When I came into this job, I certainly vowed it would see the light of day.”

But Memorial University’s senate approved its law school in the same month that Ryerson University saw its law school rejected by the Ontario provincial government, which cited funding concerns.

Golfman says Memorial and Ryerson are in very different contexts.

“Memorial is the only university in this province. When you look at Ontario, there is a lot of competition,” Golfman says. “In large part, the need for a law faculty here was driven less by the need to produce more lawyers, to be fair, than it was to develop a rich legal culture that the province needs, relies on for expertise and guidance and . . . informs public policy. We have a lot of challenges in this province. Having that kind of home-grown expertise is a very important priority. I’m not sure it can really compare that is in a completely different social-geographical area.”

As of 2016, Newfoundland and Labrador had 554 practising members, according to the the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador’s annual report, serving a province with a population of about half a million people as of 2017’s Statistics Canada report. Compare that to Ontario, which has 14.2 million people and 50,000 lawyers, plus many more thousand independent paralegals and volunteers at legal clinics.

The school at Memorial University would cost $9 million per year, including $2.9 million in annual instructor salaries, $1.9 million in library acquisitions, $1.4 million in financing costs, $700,000 in administrative salaries, $330,000 in operating costs and $300,000 in library salaries, among other items. The proposal submitted to the university’s senate models a revenue-neutral law school, with costs that are “minor compared with the cost that Memorial has already initiated and borne with the establishment of a medical school.”

The school considers the budget, which assumes there is no public funding support whatsoever, a starting point for a conversation with the province about its potential investment interest, says Golfman. That scenario requires tuition fees of about $30,000 yearly.

“We are having some hard times in the province,” says Golfman.  “We needed to . . . be absolutely transparent about what the costs of educating a law student would be under the current circumstances.”

It will likely be three to four more years before the school would be prepared to open, as it still must be submitted for approval to the university’s board of regents before it can move forward to other regulators. The proposal approved by the university’s senate predicts a complement of 100 students per year and a permanent faculty complement of 18 by the third year of the program. The program will focus on Indigenous law topics with two JD  specialties, sustainable northern resource development and social justice, the university’s proposal said. 

Golfman says the school hopes to eventually offer aid and scholarships to students who hope to pursue these areas of study, which are not always as highly paid as jobs in traditional corporate law. The current mid-point salary for a first-year associate is $61,871 in St. John’s and $68,972 in Toronto, according to Robert Half Legal, which says that the areas of law with the most job openings are litigation, real estate, regulatory and compliance, privacy or data security and intellectual property.

“Right now, we have a flat across the board fee, and it’s frozen. If we move to relaxing that and the board approved that, we would be using this proposal as an example of a program that would need some kind of subvention for students who fall below a certain threshold of household income,” says Golfman.


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