Investing in B.C.’s Legal Education

B.C. law schools are undergoing their biggest ?makeover in a generation, but better buildings ?aren’t their only concern.

New UBC Law building | BCBusiness
UBC Law’s new Allard Hall brings the prestigious faculty out of its current inadequate buildings, including the brutalist 1970s concrete “bunker,” where students rarely glimpsed natural light.

B.C. law schools are undergoing their biggest 
makeover in a generation, but better buildings 
aren’t their only concern.

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Shakespeare’s oft-quoted line from Henry VI may draw laughs from those who feel lawyers provide more interference than structure to society, but it’s no laughing matter in B.C. The law profession in the province is grappling with a shortage of lawyers not unlike the shortage of doctors the health-care system faces. A shortage of funding for articling students and the draw for lawyers of one of the world’s most livable cities mean that access to legal services is severely curtailed in many parts of the province.

“Lawyers are needed to perform a whole bunch of functions in our society,” says Wayne Robertson, executive director of the Law Foundation of B.C., which was established in 1969 to distribute interest from lawyers’ trust funds in support of legal education and research, legal aid and law reform. “There needs to be enough lawyers to do the real estate transactions, to help people write their wills, to help people negotiate their separations if they split from their spouse.”

But in many communities, he says, lawyer numbers are dwindling. Data gathered by the Canadian Bar Association indicate that almost half the lawyers in the province are older than 50 and the average age is 47. Smaller communities are disproportionately affected by the greying of the profession, with the average age in some communities being 60 or older. Moreover, 80 per cent of law students tend to article in Metro Vancouver, leading them to pursue jobs there rather than in, say, Cranbrook or Horsefly.

B.C.’s biggest legal education investment in a generation

It’s a difficult case for the province’s lawyers. So used to advocating for others, they’ve now got to plead the merits of their own profession. The best place to do this, however, is not a courtroom but a lecture hall, and B.C. is now seeing one of the biggest investments in legal education in a generation. A new, $60-million building for the law school at UBC opened this fall, while Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops plans to spend $20 million building a home for the first new law school to open in Canada in 35 years. Together, the projects offer an opportunity to show what legal education can be in the 21st century, not only in Metro Vancouver, but in the hinterlands beyond Hope as well.

The investment has been a long time coming. While UBC’s bold new science buildings were developed and its cramped old Main Library, a seismic hazard, was refashioned as the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, the university’s prestigious law faculty languished in its original 1950s digs, augmented only by a 1970s structure affectionately known as “the bunker” and by some portable structures that became permanent.

“When the 1950s building was built, that was the first purpose-built law school building in Canada. And it was actually quite lovely,” Dean Mary Anne Bobinski says. “It had floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over the water and the mountains.”

Rising enrolment (this year’s tally stands at 640) and growing stature boosted the demands on the original law building, however, leading to the addition of a minimalist 1970s edifice in the brutalist style – an aesthetic so named for its robust use of raw concrete, béton brut. The designation could just as easily have described the building’s effect on professors and students: its stark, windowless exterior and inflexible structure made it a harsh, unwelcoming environment.

A new building was so desperately needed that students Jared Bachynski and Servane Phillips played on fears of continued delay with a parody of Hitler’s rant from the 2004 movie Downfall in this year’s UBC Law Revue. (Watch “Hitler is a second-year law student at UBC” on YouTube.)

Fears of interminable delays proved unfounded, however. The completion of Allard Hall this summer opened a world of possibilities with state-of-the-art classrooms and a vision for international collaboration. It’s something the old space couldn’t do. “The building that we’ve worked with has never been at the same level as our faculty and our students and our programs,” Bobinski says, matter-of-factly.

The new 141,000-square-foot building brings the faculty together under one roof. Built with the help of generous donations from alumni and friends around the world, as well as a $11.9-million gift from alumnus and philanthropist Peter Allard’s Highbury Foundation, the impressive new building means the law faculty is no longer packed into 115,650 square feet scattered across campus. It also houses the independent B.C. Law Institute and the International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy, a U.N.-affiliated law reform organization.

“The ongoing challenge is to make sure that UBC is in a leadership position in being able to provide the highest-quality educational experience for students,” Bobinski says.

The design of the new building aims to achieve this. State-of-the-art teaching and research space is complemented by a library. Natural light, a rare commodity in the 1970s building, is abundant. The centrepiece is a three-storey meeting area for hosting forum discussions with the technology required to broadcast these internationally.

“What we were really trying to do is design a far more compact school centred around a law forum, a crossroads in the centre of the building that is the place where students and faculty and visitors meet on each floor,” explains Don Schmitt, principal of Toronto’s Diamond and Schmitt Architects Inc., which designed the building in partnership with local firm CEI Architecture Planning Interiors. “It’s a crossroads . . . where people are always moving in that space between classrooms and offices and so forth.”

The dynamic flow of people and ideas was impossible in the rabbit warren the faculty previously occupied. “It had the characteristics more of a squashed Scottish castle than something that is really a place where people gather,” Schmitt says. “It really separated people rather than brought them together.”

Law is a profession that depends on dialogue, a key element in the faculty’s vision for itself as it prepares students to work in locales from Atlin to Africa on matters ranging from commercial law to human rights. This is underscored by Peter Allard’s gift, part of which is tagged for the creation of an international integrity prize UBC will award.

“Legal education is really focused on discussion and debate and a really collegial sort of learning,” Schmitt argues. “It’s more about fostering connections between people than an individual struggling to learn, memorize and retain all the legal precepts. It’s a much more open and collaborative model now than I think was traditional in the past.”


Image: Diamond and Schmitt
The ambitious new Thompson Rivers University law
building is designed to evoke the silhouettes of
nearby Mount Peter and Mount Paul.

Thompson Rivers University law school

Diamond and Schmitt was asked to express a similar openness in its design for the home of a new law school that Thompson Rivers University launched in Kamloops this fall. The first new law school in Canada since the University of Calgary’s law faculty opened in 1976, TRU’s school lacked an institutional history that would prejudice its architectural expression.

Schmitt says his firm is aiming for “a place that’s not encumbered by tradition,” adding that UBC, by contrast, “has got long-standing traditions of what goes on at the school; they’re constantly reinventing that, but it’s still part of that history. In Thompson Rivers, it’s a brand new start.”

The school’s first 65 law students (it vows it will never welcome more than 100 a year) are currently based in the newest building on campus, the House of Learning. The law school will move into its own digs in 2014.

Built on the foundation of the administration building raised in 1971 for Cariboo College, the new building connects the Thompson Rivers school to the past as well as the aspirations for the community. It’s a crossroads, just like the UBC building, but Schmitt explains it in relation to its referencing of two sacred First Nations sites, Mount Peter and Mount Paul, and its incorporation of timber salvaged from pine-beetle-damaged forests. The setting “really provokes you as an architect to make a stronger connection between the building interior and the landscape,” Schmitt says.

“It’s a pretty major change to legal education in Canada and in British Columbia,” says Chris Axworthy, dean of the TRU law school. “It says something about taking legal education out to where other people are – other than in the metropolitan centres.”

Axworthy says that schools have to be where the demand and the need are and pegs current demand for legal education in Canada at 10 applicants for every available space. But having everyone flock to the cities for training isn’t necessarily healthy. “Some, in fact many, students, might want a smaller environment, a smaller law school than one that has hundreds and hundreds of students in it,” he says. “And if you don’t live in a large metropolitan area, of course you’re not particularly attracted to ever more concentration in large metropolitan areas. There is a sense, I think, in which it’s appropriate to decentralize the delivery of services.”

While the new $20-million structure planned for TRU includes a $500,000 high-tech lecture theatre connecting it with the world, the school also reflects local concerns. First Nations legal issues are a priority, for example, and the school wants to build on Kamloops’s claim to be “Canada’s Tournament Capital,” with a focus on sports law.

Image: Diamond and Schmitt
Renderings of the main entrance and the main

The school expects to have a $5-million annual budget within five years. It has already attracted professors from universities in Lancashire and Western Australia and it’s also cultivating relationships with the University of Calgary and Staffordshire University in England, the latter a leader in sports law. It’s a promising start to give rural B.C. a say in legal education.

“The push for the law school was partly as a result of the profession in Kamloops, and the community as a whole, and the university,” Axworthy says. “It was a recognition that this would be something that Kamloops could benefit from.”

But the multimillion-dollar investment in the law schools at UBC and Thompson Rivers is nothing if the legal eaglets they hatch don’t make their way into the community. “Simply investing in new law schools is not the solution to demand for law schools, or even the need for access to legal services,” Bobinski says. “There have to be other kinds of investments in the system, into the articling process, into support for people taking up legal careers in rural and under-served areas.”

Jim Emmerton, executive director at the B.C. Law Institute, agrees. “It’s always a challenge to have enough positions for the graduates,” he says.

The institute is at UBC because of the law library, which helps it research law reform and issues the profession faces, but Emmerton says moving from the stationary trailer known as “Annex I” into Allard Hall will also bring it in regular contact with faculty and students. “Those relationships are good now, but they’ll be further enhanced, significantly, by us being in there,” he says.

The opportunities to cultivate relationships with students is particularly important in fulfilling the UBC law school’s community mandate, as the institute offers one articling position each year in conjunction with Boughton Law Corp. in Vancouver. “The student spends part of the year with us and part of the year with them, so there they get commercial and litigation experience in addition to what we can offer,” Emmerton explains.

That sort of experience is important in giving students a leg up. It also reflects the priorities of the Law Foundation of B.C., which has not only agreed to match private donations for the new law school building up to a total of $12 million, but also contributed $795,000 to the Rural Education and Access to Lawyers Initiative, a three-year program sponsored by the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association, and other programs designed to expose lawyers to opportunities in rural practice. 

“That program is working to address the fact that, in rural parts of the province the lawyer population is aging and there’s a shortage of lawyers in many communities,” Robertson says of the initiative.

The establishment of a law school in Kamloops will further help bridge the gap with rural areas. The Law Foundation has granted $15,000 for consultations toward a law library at the new school, and it expects additional applications for funding will be forthcoming.

Robertson believes the reconstruction of the UBC law school and the creation of a school in Kamloops are investments in legal education the province hasn’t seen in a generation. “There has been a recognition of the need for some expansion here,” Robertson says. “It hasn’t come for a long, long time.”