Articling crisis affects students

Society that oversees province’s lawyers to vote on alternative path to articling

If the Law Society of Upper Canada’s vote is successful, law students will be able to choose between articling and a new legal practice program to fulfill their licensing requirements.
If the Law Society of Upper Canada’s vote is successful, law students will be able to choose between articling and a new legal practice program to fulfill their licensing requirements.
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A proposed pilot project from the Law Society of Upper Canada could change the way lawyers in Ontario become licenced.

The new program would see prospective lawyers choose between obtaining an articling position and completing a combination legal practice program to fulfill their licencing requirements and be called to the bar. Presently, all Ontario lawyers are required to partake in articling within three years of writing their licencing exams.

The proposal comes from a task force commissioned by the Law Society to look into the shortage of articling positions in the province.

“We’ve been monitoring the articling situation for more than a decade,” Roy Thomas, Law Society spokesperson, said.

In 2008, he noted, about seven or eight per cent of the graduating class of law students in Ontario were unable to find an articling position; currently, that figure is between 12 and 15 per cent, with 200 to 300 articling candidates stuck without a placement.

“The first thing we did in 2008 was to survey the profession extensively,” Thomas said. “We talked to virtually every law firm of any size in the province to get a better understanding of why they were able and willing to create articling positions or not.”

The task force received submissions from professionals and academics across the province, including Queen’s.

Through their research, they identified over 400 firms that they judged to be capable of providing new articling positions. They encouraged those firms to add positions, but Thomas said not a single new one was created. A vote on whether to approve the new program by the Law Society’s governing body was deferred on Oct. 25 until Nov. 22.

A favourable vote would result in the articling program remaining at 10 months long, while the law practice program path, including the co-op and a skills-training program, would take about eight months’ time.

Both paths would include an assessment at the end to ensure learning objectives have been met.

“The goal of articling or other skills training is to make sure that lawyers are competent. That the public are served by professionals who actually understand the law and are prepared to provide them with a fully competent service,” Thomas said.

“The proposal is for a five-year pilot program, so if we haven’t got all of the exact details just right, then they’ll be refined.”

While the majority of the task force advocated the proposed pilot program, a minority of its members were in favour of doing away with articling entirely, Thomas added.

He said in addition to promoting accessibility for licencing candidates, the new program is also designed to make hiring a lawyer more affordable for Ontarians in need.

“Research that we’ve done in Ontario, particularly in the middle income Ontarians shows that they are finding it difficult to find legal services that they can afford in some areas of law, in particular family law, criminal law [and] immigration law,” Thomas said.

“The typical articling program that’s offered from a large law firm usually doesn’t deal in family law, immigration law or criminal law, so the new path that we’re proposing should make it possible for more licencing candidates to do their experiential learning in [those] areas.”

At Queen’s, only six students from the last graduating class were unplaced, compared to seven from the University of Toronto and 10 from Western University. A handful of Queen’s students are placed in Kingston firms, while the majority — about 80 per cent — go to mid- to large-sized firms in Toronto.

Dean of Law William Flanagan said the University doesn’t currently have a position on the proposed pilot program.

“I think because we are just of too many minds, there is diversity in the faculty,” he said. “The sense among the students is that they are supportive in retaining article positions.”

His personal opinion is that while articling is an important method of training for students, there can be a lack of diversity in the quality of articling experiences and he understands why alternatives must be considered.

“It’s difficult for the law society to regulate articling to ensure that it is all of the same quality considering it’s in so many diverse settings; small firms, big firms, government,” he said.

Queen’s Law Students’ Society President Robert Thompson, Law ’13, said the possibility of not finding an articling position is always in the back of a student’s mind, but it’s not a major concern.

“[Queen’s] has done such a good job of placing everybody in an articling position,” he said.

He said he’s concerned the drive to create more articling spots has already led to a dip in quality for students.

While the pilot project, he fears, will lead to some firms offering fewer articling positions. He also worries that some graduates will be seen as better than others because they’ve gone through articling rather than the legal practice program.

“Obviously, though, we are in a tough situation with so many unplaced students in articling [positions] currently and I guess the Law Society does have to respond to that.”

— With files from Vincent Matak

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