The purpose-driven lawyer

The myth of the rich lawyer is remarkably widespread. That’s odd, considering the fact that while some lawyers are very well off, many others simply make a decent living, and some sacrifice potential income for a greater purpose.

These days, only the independently wealthy emerge from three years of legal education debt-free. Tuition is higher than it’s ever been, and textbooks aren’t exactly cheap either. Add in the cost of living in the metropolitan centres where many schools are located, and you can see why law school has become a major financial investment.

The schools do their part to ease the burden — bursaries and grants for lower-income students are greater than ever before, for example. But they need help if universal accessibility to a legal education is to be preserved, something that is a legitimate objective for our profession.

You can appreciate why the schools resist calls for tuition freezes. The convergence of government funding cuts, globalized competition for top professors and students, and aging facilities in need of renovation or replacement means that law faculties have to maximize their revenue sources. Many law firms have stepped forward with generous grants and sponsorships, but the bar can’t fill the funding gap alone.

The ideal solution would strike a balance, providing schools with sufficient financial flexibility to forge competitive programs while also pursuing the worthy goal of a truly diverse profession that reflects Canadian society. These are not diametrically opposing objectives, and through consultation and innovation, that solution can be found.

But consider the potential cost of failing to achieve that balance. Legal careers dedicated to ensuring fairness and justice form the foundation of a just society and express the best ideals to which this profession can aspire. They stand for the proposition that law can be the key to better lives for people fighting obstacles most of us will never know.

If we allow these types of careers to become inaccessible for all practical purposes, we will have lost more of our professional soul than we realize. It’s been said that the test of a society is how well it treats its most vulnerable members. The test of a profession is how much it’s willing to invest in that effort.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the July/August 2006 issue of National magazine.