Scholarships in Canada can Make an LL.M. Free

Financial aid has increased to help more students leave law school debt-free

Finance is a major factor in prospective students’ decision to attend law school, where the fees for an LL.M. degree can be substantial.

Historically, many employers have been willing to fund the flagship law degrees to groom their rising stars for leadership roles. But this practice has declined as organizations have cut costs in the aftermath of the financial crisis and more recently the coronavirus pandemic.

Many students perusing LL.M. degrees in Canada have had to fund the experience themselves. However, opportunities to be paid to study are being revitalized thanks to scholarship funds created by law schools to help draw applicants who would not otherwise be able to afford a degree that costs a six-figure sum at elite institutions.

The Schulich School of Law of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, awards $2m CAD each year to students, more than 60 percent of whom receive financial aid. The scholarships range in value from $3,000 CAD to $20,000 CAD, and are usually more than enough to cover the school’s tuition fees.

LL.M. scholarships in Canada: broadening access to more students

In Canada, like elsewhere, scholarships are an important instrument used by law schools to attract a broader base of students to their LL.M. programs, not just those who come from international law firms. For instance, the Schulich School awards an LL.M. scholarship from the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the province’s black people.

While law schools speak about broadening access to underrepresented groups like women and ethnic minorities, scholarship dollars also flow to candidates with a strong academic track record that can indicate success in education and the labor market. 

“It is safe to say that candidates who have an excellent track record in their previous studies will have greater chances to be granted a scholarship,” says Lucie Guibault, associate dean for graduate studies at Schulich School. These are known as merit-based scholarships, while other awards are based on financial need, or a combination of factors.

Most of all, however, scholarships at her institution are offered to candidates who demonstrate passion for their subject, a high degree of curiosity and creativity. “Graduate studies in any field demand a lot of motivation and self-discipline,” Guibault says.

Prospective students at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law — where a wide range of need- and merit-based scholarships are available — are automatically considered for an award when they apply for a place on the school’s LL.M. program.

“Students will be evaluated competitively and will be competing against the pool of applicants who are admitted in a given year,” says Gloria Strathern, prizes and awards coordinator at the law school. “Students with strong academics will be most competitive.”

More scholarship money often means more freedom

For some prospective students, a scholarship can be the difference between enrolling in law school, or not. However, an award is not just a means to study: it can be a powerful signal that a candidate is exceptional. “The academic distinction can be an advantage to students as they pursue careers, or continue in their academic studies,” says Strathern.

It can also give students the financial freedom to pursue relatively lower-paid work, for example in social justice or legal research. “Scholarships offer the financial support to engage in research that will make a contribution to the understanding or development of the law,” says Prof Guibault at the Schulich School.

“Research in law is essential to make sure that the rules by which citizens are asked to abide are the best suited for society. Such insight cannot be gained from private practice,” she adds.

The search for star LL.M. candidates has intensified since the global financial crisis of 2008, when law schools in Canada and elsewhere saw a significant surge in applications from lawyers looking to ride out the recession. But this led to a glut of highly qualified lawyers on the job market, indebted and with slimer prospects for a high paying legal job. Applications to law schools subsequently plummeted, forcing schools to find imaginative ways to recruit students.

Prof Guibault says: “We have been able to increase some scholarship awards due to investment revenue returns. Others have increased due to recognition of inflation. Others have decreased, but we are working to grow all our scholarship funds to meet the needs of students.”

It is a similar story at University of Alberta, where Strathern says: “Graduate studies funding has increased marginally in recent years. We look for donors to support awards or government agencies to increase funding.”

But more recently, such funding has flatlined because of the economic emergency caused by Covid-19. “Due to the financial environment in Alberta, we have not seen an increase in these funding sources recently,” says Strathern.

Applications are expected to rise higher during the coronavirus pandemic. This could lead to intense competition for domestic students to make up for a fall in internationals due to travel curbs and uncertainty. However, campus lockdowns have strained the finances of many law schools, which will be scrutinizing scholarship applications more closely than ever.

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