Ryerson’s new law professors champion accessibility, diversity and technology

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By Kayla Zhu

Equity, accessibility and technological innovation are among some of the areas that newly appointed members of Ryerson’s Faculty of Law are focusing on ahead of the school’s opening. 

Ryerson’s brand new law program recently cross-appointed six professors from the Ted Rogers School of Management and the Faculty of Arts. 

“In the months to come, we look forward to announcing at least three more faculty appointments,” said Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi in an emailed statement to The Eyeopener.

Despite the new law professors’ varied academic backgrounds and areas of expertise, from legal pluralism to labour law, they share many common values in the legal practice. 

Addressing the diversity issue

Graham Hudson, a Ryerson criminology professor, believes that the law profession has historically been one of “power and exclusion.” 

Hudson, who is also one of the newly appointed law professors, adds that equitable admission processes would help address the industry’s lack of diversity.

“A lot of the barriers to the legal profession are systemic and transcend the legal profession, overlapping with things like race and class, access to high quality high school education, access to university education,” said Hudson. 

“I think that our one of our key commitments has to be to face squarely the underrepresentation of racialized minorities, Indigenous persons, and non-binary gendered persons in the legal profession.”

Racialized lawyers comprised only 19 per cent of the total population of Ontario lawyers, while Indigenous lawyers totalled 1.5 per cent, according to The Law Society of Ontario’s 2017 annual report.

The report also states that members of the LGBTQ+ community make up 3.5 per cent of all Ontario lawyers while individuals with disabilities make up 3.6 per cent. 

The disparity in representation is worsened with higher positions, including judicial appointments, government offices and senior partners at firms, said Hudson.

“I would love to see a focus on professionalization, equipping students to advance beyond just getting into law school and advance in terms of their 10, 15 or 20 year career plan,” said Hudson. “And to use the education they secured at Ryerson to contribute back to the communities and promote diversity beyond the legal practice.”

Pnina Alon-Shenker, a Ryerson law and business associate professor and founding academic director of the Ryerson Law & Business Clinic, shares goals similar to Hudson’s for the new law school.

Alon-Shenker said she is focused on promoting social justice, community engagement and activism in the curriculum.

“I hope to motivate students to take on the mission of making legal services more affordable and accessible to Canadians through various entrepreneurial strategies including technological innovation,” said Alon-Shenker.

Accessibility is a key value for Alon-Shenker, who has a strong background in experiential learning with her work at the Law & Business Clinic.

At the clinic, she facilitates Ryerson law and business students who provided legal assistance to small businesses and entrepreneurs that cannot afford to hire a lawyer. 

She hopes to challenge students and faculty members alike to think about “the law in context, including from historical, social, political and economic perspectives.”

“I also hope to emphasize the importance of learning from equity-seeking groups including Indigenous communities about their issues and experiences and using the law as a vehicle for social change,” said Alon-Shenker. 

Reimagining the law school

Kernaghan Webb, a Ryerson law and business professor, said that Ryerson’s new law school “represents an opportunity to rethink how legal education can be done.”

Webb’s area of expertise focuses on approaches to regulation, and finding ways of ensuring that the private sector fully addresses its environmental, social and economic impacts.

“I am a firm believer in the need to bring the practical realities and experiences of individuals, communities, governments and companies into the classroom to see how the law interacts with these practical realities,” said Webb. 

According to Webb, the law school will have a co-teaching system with working lawyers and professors “to meld theory and practice,” as well as courses on Indigenous law and social innovation in law.

In an emailed statement, Donna E. Young, dean of Ryerson’s law school, said that students will go through professional placements and multiple “intensive programs” from coding to cultural competency.

“The curriculum is designed to allow students to apply for admission to the bar directly after graduating without articling,” said Young.

While the faculty and other academic appointments are still being finalized, Young said that Ryerson law students will be taught by “some of the best lawyers and legal scholars in the country.”

“All of this will be undertaken in an intimate learning environment that will facilitate creativity and experimentation,” said Young.

Technological innovation in law

Young said that technology has already changed the law practice by automating processes, changing business models for legal services and changing accessibility to justice.

“Being innovative and entrepreneurial in thinking about law’s relationship to technology and being prepared to drive this change, instead of just reacting to it, is what we believe will set Ryerson Law apart,” said Young. 

Technology-oriented curriculum is a step in the right direction to innovate the legal industry, said Alexandra Raszewska, a recent graduate from King’s College in London, England. Raszewska described the field as “traditional and slow-moving.”

Raszewska was among the first cohort of applicants for Ryerson’s law school. The program received around 2,000 applications for 150 spots, said Lachemi in an emailed statement to The Eye

She cited its focus on technology as one of the main reasons she applied. 

“I wanted to get into the tech side of law and then I read about how [Ryerson] wanted to combine tech and law to make legal services more accessible,” said Raszewska. “That was exactly what I was looking for.”

Likewise, Jamal Johnson, a fourth-year criminology student at the University of Toronto, was “fascinated” by Ryerson’s technological approach to education.

“I believe the innovational aspect that Ryerson incorporates into its core values and beliefs is something that fits perfectly with me and my personality,” said Johnson.

His hope is that Ryerson stays true to its values and maintains a focus on the “application of innovation” in its law program. 

Johnson also highlighted Ryerson’s Law Practice Program (LPP) and said that he thinks it is “one big step towards modernizing a legal education.” 

The LPP is an eight-month program that includes four months of practical training and four months of work placement. Ontario lawyers must complete either an LPP or an articling program to fulfil the experiential learning requirement in the licensing process. 

“I hope to see more steps like this within the classroom and in the curriculum at Ryerson,” said Johnson. 

Johnson and Razweska have both received their offers of admissions from Ryerson. 

Raszewska graduated from her business program in the UK and was excited to move back home to Toronto to complete her law degree.

“I am really excited to build Ryerson’s reputation. I’ve seen a lot of people be very skeptical about Ryerson law school, but I honestly have a very positive outlook,” said Raszewska. 

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