Law School on Trial: Empirical Insight & Student Perspectives / by Michael Motala

Law School on Trial

Empirical Insight and Student Perspectives

Michael Motala & Sam Michaels

The legal academy and profession is abuzz. Following the publication of the Canadian Bar Association’s Legal Futures issue, much digital ink is being proverbially spilled contemplating the need for pedagogical reform. In this context, we are pleased to present two arguments and some suggestions. We will firstly report empirical insights and analysis from the Obiter Dicta’s most recent recruitment survey. The survey and subsequent reporting delve into the On Campus Interview (OCI) process from both an analytic and personal perspective, providing some sorely needed student insight into the discussion. Second, we hope to cast a light on some poignant student perspectives and commentary. We will do so by illuminating the debate through the experiences of current students, before concluding with our suggestions for the future and some of the Osgoode Hall administration’s recent work.

 

I.

Empirical Insight

Today’s Obiter Dicta marks the first-ever long-form student recruitment edition since our foundation in 1928. OCIs are for many students the last hiring process before seeking out articling positions, and yet this important moment of transition is also a source of polarity and divisiveness. Though OCI’s were designed to bring organization and structure to student hiring, they are often criticized for creating a hyper-competitive atmosphere and a manipulative hiring process. The survey examines both the statistical realities of OCI’s and student opinions on the experience.

Figure 1: Demographic Data

 

 

With two thirds of OCI participants responding to our survey, we are confident that the Special Edition gives a useful and informative look at student impressions of the OCI process. The Special Edition begins with a review of some of the most pertinent and important results, and some of the stand-out data. The Edition goes on to analyze hiring trends and the makeup of the student population. It concludes with student comments and opinions on the OCI experience.

Figure 2. Offer Distribution by Self-Reported Identities

 Specially for the audience of the Canadian Bar Association, we have extracted selected figures and analysis for discussion and reflection. One of the first aspects of the survey that stood out is the homogeneity of the survey-takers. OCI participants are most likely caucasian, from a wealthy background, armed with a liberal arts degree, and heading towards student debt. They also reported mental health problems at a disproportionate level to the general population, and those with issues were more likely than not to see them worsen while in school.  

Figure 3. Student Financial Profile

The hiring statistics reveal a picture that beckons for further analysis. While over half of participants received an offer (which is only a fraction of the overall class size of JD candidates), a majority sent off over 30 applications, and had to go through a phone call, an OCI, multiple in-firm interviews, and firm-organized social events before being hired. Once one considers the literal hundreds of hours required for the process, the rewards feel diminished. More analysis should be done on other legal hiring processes, to create a body of comparative data for different employment-seeking strategies.

Figure 4. Interviews & Offers

Within the student comments that make up the conclusion of the survey report, one can find the expected range of emotions such a process breeds. Students who commented about receiving offers also mentioned their relief and overall satisfaction with the process. Those who were left out lamented the hundreds of wasted hours, the gruelling workload, and the callous environment. Overall, it is clear that while the OCI process serves its purpose of creating an option for hiring, it is not providing the best option.

Figure 5. Mental Health Insights

The reality of any hiring situation is that the employer holds disproportionate power over the candidate. Despite its better intentions, the OCI process reinforces that divide. The online application platform is slow and outdated, regulations ease the process more for the firms than the students (for example, call-time rules have inadvertently forced students to guess at their availability between the firm on the phone and the ones they are still waiting on), and there is an overall lack of protection for students from being “strung along” by firms.

When one considers the massive commitment of OCIs, the arduous process, and the wide spectrum of student opinions, it becomes difficult to argue that it is any better than a hundred other ways one can find employment. And therein lies the problem. Students enter law school with no real knowledge of law or the legal industry. The school should either take it upon itself to provide extra support, or do nothing at all. The OCI process, when it works, has not demonstrated itself to be superior to any other method of finding employment, and when it does not, is hugely detrimental to students.

Adherence to the status quo is already costing the legal industry, as other industries move in to scoop up disillusioned clients, and the system reels from the access to justice crisis. In such a state, the last thing law needs is more homogeneity, fawning over traditional law firms, and big-law job focus. The OCI process certainly has value, but in law school, it’s put at the top of the pedestal. At the least, it may be time for law schools to seriously reconsider the cost-benefit of having OCI’s as such a central aspect of the legal education program.

 

II.

Student Perspectives

It’s the first week in November and newly crisp outside. Toronto’s financial district is invaded by the latest cohort of second year law students vying for the dream. Adorning freshly pressed suits and womenswear, everyone looks the part. Bay St. lawyers do not hire students like other professionals. The law recruit is an idiosyncratic game of cloak and dagger. It’s the “make or break” moment for those aspiring to a career in Big Law. While starting salaries have not changed in nearly a decade, first year associates still take home $100,000 a year. Not as much as New York firms, to be sure, but participants are desperate. Student debt levels across the province have sky rocketed because of U of T Law’s unrelenting tuition increases. Candidates play along or get cut. If they are unlucky, the personal cost is immense.

By this point, the flock has been thinned. A few weeks before students interview at firms, they take part in “speed dating” on campus. Candidates have seventeen minutes to make their case for the job. But the questions are not substantive, like other industries. Interviewers strive for a casual conversation. Firms look for “fit,” not merit. When the time has elapsed, the buzzer goes off, and candidates are herded like cattle to the next stall. Rinse and repeat.

Students endure up to ten back-to-back interviews a day with little respite. Late into the evening, custom dictates that students must send disingenuous “thank you” notes to signal their interest in a firm. It can take hours to get it right. Then there is call day when candidates schedule in-firm interviews—usually orchestrated in less than five minutes after the clock strikes 8 am. Only a fraction of students are granted a second shot. Big Law leads the rest on so it can tick the “diversity box” in marketing.  

The real fun is saved for November’s in-firm week. For three days, candidates may be booked for twelve hours straight at up to eight firms. Five is the maximum recommended. They meet tens of lawyers in successive interviews, schmooze at cocktail receptions, and get wined and dined. Candidates are under constant scrutiny. Nobody wants to look desperate. Firms are also selfish. To get the job, candidates must signal their “first choice”—even when it is not the case, and there are no other options.

35% of candidates cried during in-firm week. 54% with mental health conditions report law school has aggravated their incidence. 20% were educated at private school, while another 20% will graduate with over $100,000 in debt. Participants in the survey were given an opportunity to provide written feedback to the follow questions, with selections excerpted below. Comments have been selected to balance competing narratives, and a full selection is available in the Special Edition.  

After completing the process, how do you feel?

 

Relieved that the madness is over.

It feels surreal! The last few days were a whirlwind! I'm obviously really happy with my outcome but I'm also so tired and ready to relax.

Disenchanted with law school, generally. The things people told me would be looked positively upon in interviews (ECs) weren't even a discussion point.

I feel very disappointed, quite exhausted, and very behind in my other commitments (school, volunteering, and extra-curriculars). I am by no means a pessimistic person, but I do feel very discouraged and am questioning my choices to go to law school and desire to work in a big Toronto firm. Furthermore, I am very concerned about my finances and debt load, as well as my grades this year since I now have to devote MORE time to finding work after having lost weeks to the OCI process already.

It was an emotionally exhausting week. I didn't even know I possessed the range of emotions that I felt over these three days!

Did you observe or experience any inappropriate behavior or comments from lawyers during the process?

I felt an extreme, extreme amount of pressure by one firm to voice that they were my first choice.

I had not made a decision at that time and decided not to tell them they were my first choice unless it were absolutely true.

Asking me how many interviews I had. 

Asking who my top choices are.

What were some of the most awkward, inappropriate, or unexpected questions you were asked?

One lawyer asked my age. 

I spoke with a lawyer who spoke about other firms negatively. 

[Redacted Seven Sisters Firm] should not be making all candidates come to the breakfast reception on Wednesday morning when many of them are clearly not in contention. This is not fair to the students and is a waste of everyone's time. They should be telling the candidates who are no longer in contention to not attend the reception.

What would you change about the process? 

I would change my approach and have the mentality that my goal is to get as many offers as possible, possibly to the point of indicating that there is more than one firm that is my "top choice". Though this may be an ethically challenging position to take, having gone through it all, it seems as if firms have no difficulty doing this to students.

I have nothing productive to say - this was seriously the worst. Encourage people to pursue their interests beyond Bay Street, and invest more in non-OCI job airtime in the schools.

I could go on about the flaws in the recruitment process and, more broadly, law school generally speaking for hours. Suffice it to say that I believe the problems with the administration of our grades at Osgoode - namely, the curve - are precedent to the problems with the recruitment process - namely, the emphasis on first year performance, and specifically first semester performance.

What is one piece of advice you would give to future participants?

 Be honest with yourself about the barriers that face you as a candidate -- race, gender, etc. Don't listen to people who say "be yourself and relax", because yes, be yourself, but focus on being the best that you can be. This means hard introspection, not a happy-go- lucky attitude. Most importantly, do a mental walk-through of what you must do to stay productive if you fail, in both big and small ways. Having a plan to move forward will give you hope moving forward and pull you out of the disappointment and frustration you will feel, if/when you do fail.

Anything else you would like to share?

Osgoode Hall Law School prides itself on diversity. It boasts one of the most diverse law school environments in the country. I am not sure of the veracity of that statement. I am not sure of how the hard data compares to other law schools. Suffice it to say that Osgoode Hall Law School promotes an image of itself as extremely diverse. The Osgoode administration makes a point of noting the inclusive environment Osgoode provides to students of colour, Aboriginal students, LGBTQ2S+ students, students from varied academic backgrounds, and students with varied interests. I believe that Osgoode Hall Law School has taken greater steps than some law schools in promoting an image of diversity. In other words, I believe the school has to a certain degree achieved its commitment to change the face of the legal community. But this achievement is only on the surface. Osgoode Hall Law School has done very little to support diversity beyond its admission standards. Academic standards still privilege white, straight, male students with a background in political science, history, or economics. I have never felt so much like an outsider as I did throughout the LSUC recruitment process. Osgoode's commitment to diversity is a farce. It is an outrage. It is in no way reflected in the hiring culture at the largest law firms. Osgoode's commitment to diversity has done very little to alter the environment at the firms who recruited through the LSUC system. The emperor has no clothes. The commitment is meaningless.

III.

Challenging the Classical Model

The “classical model” of lawyering contemplates the freshly minted law student practicing corporate law on Bay Street, working 12 hours a day until they have a child, burn out, or make partner, and living happily forever after. This idea supplies the implicit justification for the cost of legal education. Our profession is a potentially lucrative monopoly. Nevertheless, the leaders of our profession must address the fact that many students sign up for this dream. Particularly those saddled with the highest debt levels from a lower income backgrounds, the economic injustice of this unsuccessful Faustian bargain can be suffocating. More data needed on employment outcomes. The OCI process is out of touch--- a toxic microcosm of the legal profession’s culture.

The legal profession is having an existential moment. Recently, the New York Times reported on a legal battle launched by Anna Alabura against her former law school. The 37-year-old graduate of New York University and Thomas Jefferson Law School is saddled with $170,000 of debt. After 150 interviews, and working part-time non-law jobs to make ends meet, it is clear she totally struck out following graduation. Arguing the school published misleading employer data, Alabura has persuaded a court to hear a lawsuit against them. She is among a small group of claimants who have succeeded in achieving a hearing on the merits in the United States (there is only one other case that will proceed). Alaburda is an exception to the rule, though her case highlights growing frustration with the way legal education is operated without regard for modern economic realities.

Business Insider recently profiled Professor Dorothy Brown of Emory University School of Law. Brown predicts that a top US law school will shutter in two to four years. “Most people at top-50 law schools think this is a fourth-tier problem, and I think that misses the mark,” argues Brown. She continued: “It used to be that if you wanted more revenue, you could simply raise tuition, however those days are long gone.” Price theory vindicates Brown’s prognostications. The inflated price of legal education is a golden straitjacket on the profession and its most vulnerable entrants, and it threatens to undermine the business case for modern law schools.

The institutional foundations of Canada’s legal education system are markedly different from the US, to be sure. We have fewer law schools and lower tuition rates. It is concerning, however, that the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, with the province’s other law schools in tow, is consistently raising tuition fees. The opening of Lakehead’s law school, and Ryerson’s plans for a JD program, will compound the problem. With fewer graduates per capita, Canadian students on balance have a better time of finding a job that US counterparts. Is it about to get worse?

Based on numerous conversations with business lawyers, it seems the Canadian industry is not growing, and salaries have stagnated for a decade. What justifies increasing fees? The Special Edition highlights the fact the most lucrative jobs are given to the two Toronto schools in disproportion. Pedigree still matters. Diversity in the profession is still lacking. Suffice it to say, the law is out of touch with the Trudeau government’s New Diversity Politics.

The Economist calls the turbulence and change we are experiencing the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Pick up any leading financial affairs magazine and all you will see nearly all the stories are on tech, finance, and cybersecurity. MaRS Discovery District and Ryerson’s Legal Innovation Zone have a growing number of innovative legal startups. Yet again, the profession has returned to a debate over theory and practice. In this context, there is a vital opportunity to challenge the assumptions—the theory of lawyering and legal education if you will—so law schools are proactive about the future.

A 2015 contribution to the Globe & Mail’s Report on Business (with which the present authors most heartily agreement) proposes the use of the peer-to-peer model “Ubernomics” to increase the value proposition of the legal profession. By fixing the mismatch between labour supply and demand at the core of the access to justice crisis, the Juris Doctor can maintain and increase its increase its value. Adopting other innovations can also help new entrants to the profession more proficiently, change the profession’s dominant mindset, and chart a new course for the future.

A reluctance to embrace innovation will be fatal. Fortunately, Ontario schools are taking up the challenge of pedagogical and programmatic reform. Osgoode Hall and Dean Lorne Sossin, to their credit, demonstrate a genuine openness to discussion and collaboration with the student body. Through the Dean for the Day contests, for example, annually the administration solicits student submissions on policy and strategy for the school. This year’s submission highlighted the urgent need for the school to plug into the digital economy, and engage difficult questions about diversity in the profession. Under Dean Sossin’s dedicated leadership and advocacy, Osgoode is poised to reshape the profession and the way law is done.

This is also an opportunity to ask ourselves a more important question: what is lawyering? What sort of future can we build for the profession? By sharpening the focus on the public interest concept, and broadening the scope of our vocation, we can reinvent the modern lawyer in the globalizing digital world. Connecting elevated legal inquiry with the needs of public affairs, legal pedagogy can encourage students and young lawyers to participate in the public discourse. The foundational skills of the JD make an excellent application in the world of journalism. This is just one way of increasing the social value of our profession. A deeper focus on entrepreneurship will further equip students with a practical toolkit, and an enhanced ability to address the access to justice crisis. 

Moving forward, students and young lawyers must strive to challenge the institutional inertia of the profession, the law’s deeply embedded hierarchies of class and power, and the implicit ontologies guiding curricular and programmatic design and execution. We hope you are with us.  

PS – Click here for a link to the Obiter’s special edition to see the results in full.

Sam Michaels is a third year Juris Doctor student and the Editor-in-Chief of Obiter Dicta. Michael Motala is a second year Juris Doctor student who authored the survey, and recently served as Osgoode’s Dean for a Day. Check out the Osgoode Dean for a Day Video to see how the school is approaching legal innovation.