person wearing graduation cap with a price tag attached

The Burden of Debt

  • August 09, 2016
  • Brock B. Jones

What was the cost of tuition when you attended law school?

If it had been double, or even triple that amount: would you still have attended? Could you realistically have afforded it? And would it have had an impact on your career choices?

Odds are you paid a small fraction of the tuition rates facing law school students today. Tuition fees at Ontario law schools range from around $16,000 per year at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay to more than $33,000 at the University of Toronto.

Many have raised concerns that as tuition rates continue to rise many graduates will feel pressure to seek out higher paying positions rather than pursue their preferred career paths. This, in turn, may reduce the number of graduates pursuing public interest law jobs.

Yet while Ontario law school applications are down in the last five years, universities continue to receive far more applicants than there are spots available. Is rising tuition truly having this impact? And is the benefit to one’s legal education, arguably in the form of more prestigious faculty, modern learning environments and greater opportunities for students nevertheless worth it?

Much has been written about this subject, with passionate views expressed on both sides.

For this article, I interviewed four students at different law schools in Ontario to hear their personal stories. In some cases, names and some other pieces of information have been changed to protect the interviewee’s anonymity. All of them expressed similar concerns.


Tia recently graduated from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law and now carries a debt load of over $100,000. Her main areas of interest when she entered law school were and remain international human rights and refugee law, based on her own parents’ experiences as refugees fleeing a war-torn country. She intended to use her law degree to pursue a career in those areas and did spend her time at law school volunteering in various public interest projects and clinics.

Yet by the end of first year, she was facing the sheer magnitude of her debt load and increasingly feeling the pressure towards the Bay Street funnel. She ultimately chose to participate in the OCI recruitment process, ending up summering and then articling at a downtown law firm. You “just have to accept that it’s there”, she explains about her debt, and realize that it means making hard choices. If her tuition had not been so high or had there been greater financial aid, she feels she would have chosen to explore the career path in public interest, as she had intended when she started law school.

As students see their lines of credit steadily increasing, and the allure of Bay Street money presents itself during the early stages of student recruitment, it can simply be impossible to ignore.

The culture of law school is one that also steers students towards corporate law, she explains. As students see their lines of credit steadily increasing, and the allure of Bay Street money presents itself during the early stages of student recruitment, it can simply be impossible to ignore. And while there are financial aid offerings to students who take lower paying jobs after they graduate, that process is unclear and unpredictable. More could be done to help students understand the financial viability of pursuing a public interest career.

Eventually, Tia decided to pursue her public interest passions after articling, but is doing so with the large weight of her law school debt hanging over her. 


Michelle attends the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa where tuition is approximately $16,000 a year. In addition to that, she must pay for living expenses. She expects to graduate with a debt load of over $20,000, and she considers herself lucky. But she has already had to cash in some savings and RRSPs.

As a mature student, she was able to enter law school after an earlier career, and was more financially stable than some of her younger classmates. Debt loads and the need to secure an articling position are “serious concerns” among law students, she notes. Leaving law school without a job lined up and carrying such a huge financial burden causes much fear and anxiety among her peers.

She is interested in a career in public law or criminal law, and had the privilege of working a criminal law firm last summer. She hopes to secure an articling position with the government. But she feels that her ability to choose this path is in large part due to the fact that her expected debt load, while large, is manageable in part because she had savings before entering law school. Not everyone, she notes, is in the same situation.


Leslie, 32, recently finished her second year at Lakehead University’s Faculty of Law, where her tuition fees are approximately $17,000 per year. Add to that the cost of books, living expenses, and other commitments, and she expects to graduate with a debt load of about $30,000-40,000.

This summer she will be working at a legal clinic in Thunder Bay, focusing on assisting people with respect to a variety of areas involving social justice. For articling, she notes that Lakehead University offers a unique, integrated practice curriculum (IPC), where articling requirements are done concurrent with academic studies.  As part of the IPC requirements, she will do her placement at the local Crown Attorney's office. She hopes to secure a position in the area of social justice or public law.

As she prepares to enter the next phase of her life, and looks forward to getting married and having a family, the financial pressures are still ever-present and daunting.

She acknowledges the effect of student debt loads on students’ choices. It is simply profound. She worked for five years before attending law school, and left a career to go back to school. This gave her some time to prepare for the financial commitment involved, and made her more motivated to make the necessary sacrifices so she can practise in the areas of law she is passionate about. But as she prepares to enter the next phase of her life, and looks forward to getting married and having a family, the financial pressures are still ever-present and daunting.

“I’m lucky”, Leslie told me, “because I’m making decisions with my partner now, and we can commit to financial planning in a way younger students cannot.” During her first two degrees, she was able to work and earned enough money to graduate debt-free. The same cannot be said about what she knows will be the case following her graduation from law school.

Even being well-prepared for the costs involved, the stress and anxiety associated with the financial pressure is always there. This is a common concern among her peers, and it seems to simply grow every year.  

Tuition fees, she tells me, are a reality facing all students when applying to law school. They played a major role in her decision to attend Lakehead. While the school’s unique mandate appealed to her, and she has her roots in northern Ontario, tuition fees were a major factor in her decision as well.


“Of course” tuition fees and student debt affect student choices, notes Anthony, who is finishing his first year at Windsor’s Faculty of Law.

He is currently paying about $19,000 a year, and tuition is set to rise at least 2% a year over the next two years. Having gone straight into law school after finishing his undergraduate degree, he expects to carry a debt load of over $90,000 by the time he is done.

It is difficult to put into words the pressures placed on students as they see their debt loads nearing six figures, and the sheer weight of that financial commitment begins to sink home.

Anthony concluded an internship in India in the past, and would love to return to a developing nation to use his law degree as a force for positive change. But this is simply not possible until his debts are paid off.

He wonders if by the time he has them under control, he will be focused on new goals (marriage, family, etc) and the opportunity to do this kind of work may have simply passed him by.

Almost every student in his class is paralyzed by this concern. The most important concern many students have during the on-campus interview process is simply how much a position will pay, and not necessarily where they will work or what areas of law they will be practice in. Unless a well-paying position is secured, students cannot see their way financially forward.

Windsor Law, he notes, offers more of a social justice focus than some other schools. But even with that focus, many students interested in public law careers, or those who might work at a smaller, boutique firm, simply abandon that focus once the allure of Bay Street positions are presented.

“What can I do to reduce my debt?” is the question every student is asking him or herself. And once you enter the Bay Street lifestyle, is it something you will really be able to give up?

Brock B. JonesAbout the Author

Brock B. Jones has been a Crown counsel for more than 10 years, with a focus on criminal law, youth criminal justice, and constitutional law. He is an Adjunct Professor of Law with the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law and is a member of the Ontario Bar Association's JUST. magazine editorial board.

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